Experts Say Genetic Data Collection by Chinese Company Presents Global Policy Challenge

A Chinese gene company is collecting genetic data through prenatal tests from women in more than 50 countries for research on the traits of populations, raising concern that such a large DNA database could give China a technological advantage and the strategic edge to dominate global pharmaceuticals, according to a recent news report.

Analysts expressed unease with the developments exclusively reported by Reuters at BGI Group, the Chinese gene company, which is collecting genetic data via its NiPT prenatal test with the brand name NIFTY (Non-Invasive Fetal TrisomY).

The tests, sold in more than 50 countries, can detect abnormalities such as Down syndrome in the fetus by capturing DNA from the placenta in the bloodstream about 10 weeks into a pregnancy.

The tests are sold in 52 countries, including Germany, Spain and Denmark, as well as in Britain, Canada, Australia, Thailand, India and Pakistan, according to Reuters. They are not sold in the United States, where “government advisers warned in March that the genomic data BGI is amassing and analyzing with artificial intelligence could give China a path to economic and military advantage,” Reuters reported. 

Collecting the biggest and most diverse set of human genomes could propel China to dominate global pharmaceuticals, and also potentially lead to genetically enhanced soldiers, or engineered pathogens to target the U.S. population or food supply, the U.S. advisers said, according to Reuters.

Reggie Littlejohn, founder and president of the rights group Women’s Rights Without Frontiers, said that due to China’s strategy of fusing military and civilian interests, “any Chinese company can be forced by the government to supply its information to the military.”

China sells the prenatal tests “a good product at a lower cost because they’re able to do that,” Littlejohn said. “But what people don’t realize is that when they get these lower cost genetic tests,” the collected information goes to the Chinese military,” she told VOA via a video interview using Microsoft Teams.

The Reuters report said the company has “worked with the Chinese military to improve ‘population quality’ and on genetic research to combat hearing loss and altitude sickness in soldiers.”

China’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs dismissed the report, telling Reuters it was “a groundless accusation and smear campaign.”

Dan Harris, an international lawyer and author at the China Law Blog, told VOA Mandarin that he believes democratic entities, such as the United States, Japan, Korea, Australia and the European Union, are going to realize they “need to enact special laws to deal with China and China’s hoovering of data.”

Crystal Grant, a data scientist and molecular biologist with a Ph.D. in genetics who is a technology fellow in the Speech, Privacy and Technology Project at the American Civil Liberties Union, told VOA Mandarin via Teams video interview that this accumulation of DNA will challenge genomic policy worldwide.

By using what she described as “this massive amount of information” and supercomputers “to crack those codes is going to be a threat to genomic policy everywhere,” she told VOA in a video interview.

Huang Yanzhong, a senior fellow for global health at the Council of Foreign Relations, told VOA Mandarin in a TV interview in February that rapid advances in genetics and biotechnology have highlighted the need for the international community to step up regulations to prevent data abuse.

“It is not just China. The progress in the legal framework in this area is lagging behind,” Huang said. “It’s vital for the international community to sit down and work out a framework.”

Genetic engineering

Yet researchers worldwide in the academic, private and government sectors, are refining genetic engineering techniques and knowledge.

China’s interest in the field is not new. In 2018, researcher He Jiankui announced that he had produced twins genetically altered to resist HIV using a relatively new, accurate and very fast American-developed genetic editing technique known by its acronym, CRISPR.

In 2019, a Chinese court found He guilty of using “illegal medical practices” and sentenced He to three years in prison.

Prenatal privacy

Reuters found no evidence BGI violated patient privacy agreements or regulations. “However, the privacy policy on the NIFTY test’s website says data collected can be shared when it is ‘directly relevant to national security or national defense security’ in China,” the report stated.

BGI dismissed the Reuters report, saying that the company’s research has met national and international requirements.

“All NIPT data collected overseas are stored in BGI’s laboratory in Hong Kong and are destroyed after five years, as stipulated by General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR),” the company said in a statement released on July 9.

BGI emphasized that it developed the NIPT test alone, not in a partnership with China’s military.

Reuters interviewed four women who have used the BGI’s prenatal tests in Poland, Spain and Thailand. They all signed consent forms stating that their genetic data would be stored and used for research, yet they are not aware that their genetic information could end up in China.

Harris, the lawyer, told VOA that most of the time, people didn’t know what they were signing.

“Maybe the sign off says that it will be limited to BGI and BGI access, though XYZ, a Chinese military company, might be one of BGI’s subsidiaries,” which would mean that the consent form allowed BGI to transfer a woman’s genetic information to the Chinese military, he told VOA via Microsoft Teams.

One of the women, a 32-year-old office administrator from Poland, told Reuters that she would have chosen a different test had she known that her data might end up in China being used for research involving military applications.

U.S. federal authorities have been watching BGI’s record on data collection. Bill Evanina, former director of the United States National Counterintelligence and Security Center, told the CBS-TV newsmagazine 60 Minutes in January that he was extremely concerned when BGI offered to provide COVID-19 testing kits to several U.S. states last year.

“Knowing that BGI is a Chinese company, do we understand where that data’s going?” Evanina asked. They are the ultimate company that shows connectivity to both the communist state as well as the military apparatus.”

Edward You, supervisory special agent with the FBI and a former biochemist, told 60 Minutes in the same January episode that Beijing authorities are betting that accumulating large amounts of human DNA will prove to be a successful strategy.

“They are building out a huge domestic database,” You said. “And if they are now able to supplement that with data from all around the world, it’s all about who gets the largest, most diverse data set. And so, the ticking time bomb is that once they’re able to achieve true artificial intelligence, then they’re off to the races in what they can do with that data.”  

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