Jun 3, 2020 - World

Chinese coronavirus test maker agreed to build a Xinjiang gene bank

Illustration of hands with medical gloves placing a DNA strand in a folder

Illustration: Annelise Capossela/Axios

A leading Chinese gene sequencing and biomedical firm that said it would build a gene bank in Xinjiang is supplying coronavirus tests around the world.

Why it matters: U.S. officials are worried that widespread coronavirus testing may provide an opportunity for state-connected companies to compile massive DNA databases for research as well as genetics-based surveillance.

The big picture: Widespread, frequent and accessible testing will be key to containing the pandemic, say experts. But this intense global demand could compromise the data privacy of individuals all over the globe, unless appropriate safeguards are in place.

  • U.S. officials are particularly focused on BGI, a leading Chinese gene sequencing and biomedical firm, which has distributed more than 10 million COVID-19 tests to over 80 countries worldwide. BGI’s tests were approved by the FDA for use within the United States.
  • BGI has engaged in gene sequencing of Xinjiang residents and has announced it would build a gene bank and a "judicial collaboration" center in Xinjiang, Axios has found, a region where authorities are seeking to build up genetics-based surveillance capabilities targeting ethnic minorities.

What they're saying: China “has a well-documented history of acquiring and exploiting vast troves of personally identifiable information, including health-related data, on individuals across the globe through illegal, quasi-legal and legal means,” said William Evanina, the director of the National Counterintelligence and Security Center (NCSC), and the top U.S. counterintelligence official.

  • “We justifiably have concerns about Chinese firms subject to Chinese government information-sharing mandates being in a position to collect additional personal data on populations around the globe,” said Evanina.
  • A recent NCSC bulletin warning test providers on potential risks was not designed to discourage individuals from seeking testing. “It’s about protecting patient data,” said Dean Boyd, chief communications executive at NCSC.

The intrigue: There’s a fundamental reason to take the threat of cooperation and coordination between Chinese firms and the Chinese government seriously: China’s laws mandate it.

  • A 2015 national security law obligates that individuals and companies provide “support and assistance” to the government in “safeguarding national security.”
  • A 2017 law goes even further, requiring private sector cooperation with China’s intelligence services.

These concerns are particularly salient when it comes to companies that collect and monetize genetic information — and especially if they apply that research to forensics, the use of DNA evidence for law enforcement purposes.

  • It's not just the U.S. that is worried. BGI’s connections to Beijing have led Israel’s largest HMO to decline to use its COVID-19 tests.

New details: BGI or its subsidiaries have contributed to efforts to document the genetic material of ethnic minorities, including the forensic applications of such sequencing, Axios has found.

  • In July 2016, BGI chairman and co-founder Wang Jian signed an agreement with party leaders in Urumqi to lead the creation of a “Xinjiang gene bank” in order to support “health, medicine, and legal justice” in the region, according to an announcement posted to a Xinjiang government website that was later removed.
  • BGI’s Urumqi headquarters would include a “judiciary collaboration innovation center” and a “forensic expertise center,” according to an April 2017 article in party newspaper People's Daily, and its work would contribute to Xinjiang's "stability," a common euphemism often referring to repression by force.
  • Beijing Liuhe Huada, a subsidiary of BGI, sequenced some samples for a 2017 study comparing Han and Uighur subjects. The study was published by a researcher at Shihezi University, which is affiliated with the Xinjiang Production and Construction Corps, a paramilitary organization that manages many resources and land in Xinjiang and is known to have helped build some mass detention camps.
  • A 2017 study of the Dong ethnic minority stated BGI had done the genetic sequencing; the study said the results could potentially be used for both medical purposes and forensics.

BGI has previously said that it does not provide technology used in the genetic surveillance of Uighurs.

Context: The Chinese government, and the private Chinese companies that often work hand in glove with government ministries, have already pushed human genetics research beyond what many consider to be acceptable ethical boundaries.

  • In Xinjiang, where Chinese authorities have constructed a high-tech security state aimed at controlling Muslim ethnic minorities, authorities have collected DNA samples from wide swaths of the minority population under circumstances where informed consent was likely impossible.
  • Scientists affiliated with the Chinese public security bureau have sought to use DNA from China’s Muslim minorities to create facial reconstructions that could possibly be used for facial recognition surveillance.
  • Chinese scientists affiliated with public security bureaus frequently publish genetics research targeting Chinese minorities, one study in the scientific journal Nature found.

What they’re saying: “BGI Group takes all issues of data protection, privacy and ethics extremely seriously,” a BGI spokesperson told Axios in a statement.

  • “With all of the COVID-19 laboratory solutions we provide worldwide, including tests, BGI has no access to patient data. BGI only supplies the products and know-how, but does not receive, process or manage patient data.”
  • “BGI is an independent company owned by shareholders and employees. It is not owned or controlled by the government,” the spokesperson added.

But BGI does have significant and long-standing ties to the Chinese government.

What to watch: The U.S. government has placed export bans on several Chinese companies deemed complicit in human rights abuses in Xinjiang, including surveillance tech manufacturers Hikvision and Dahua.

  • BGI is not on the U.S. export blacklist.
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