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, Zach Dorfman of the Aspen Institute and I write.
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.
- 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.
What's happening: U.S. officials are particularly focused on BGI (formerly the Beijing Genomics Institute), which has distributed more than 10 million COVID-19 tests to over 80 countries worldwide.
- BGI’s tests are being used within the U.S., and officials are worried that data could be used in ways that could compromise privacy.
- BGI’s connections to Beijing have led Israel’s largest HMO to decline to use its COVID-19 tests.
What they’re saying: "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. This situation applies in the U.S. as it does worldwide," a BGI spokesperson told Axios in a statement.
- “BGI is an independent company owned by shareholders and employees. It is not owned or controlled by the government,” the spokesperson added.
Yes, but: BGI does have significant and long-standing ties to the Chinese government.
- The firm was founded with government support in 1999.
- It runs China’s national gene bank, a massive, government-owned facility.
- It received a $1.5 billion loan in 2010 from a Chinese state development bank.
- Its researchers have collaborated with a Chinese military academy; in one case, an academic maintained formal ties with both institutions simultaneously.
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 2016, BGI chairman 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 has since been deleted.
- 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.
- A 2017 study of the Dong ethnic minority stated that BGI had done the genetic sequencing; the study said the results could potentially be used for both medical purposes and forensics.
The big picture: 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 unlikely to occur.
- 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 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 has not been placed on the U.S. export blacklist.
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