Some foreign firms could use skyrocketing global demand for commercial COVID-19 tests as an opportunity to collect genetic data on unsuspecting patients, say U.S. officials. Chinese gene-sequencing giant BGI, a leading manufacturer of coronavirus tests, is a particular concern, Axios' Bethany Allen-Ebrahimian and I report.
Why it matters: Widespread coronavirus testing is fueling concerns about the use of massive DNA databases for broad research as well as genetics-based surveillance, particularly by China.
The big picture: Frequent, accessible testing will be key to containing the pandemic, say experts. But this intense global demand may also provide an opportunity for state-connected companies to compile biometric data, such as DNA samples, from individuals all over the globe, unless appropriate safeguards are in place.
- U.S. officials are particularly focused on BGI (formerly the Beijing Genomics Institute), 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.
Driving the news: 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, who, as director of the National Counterintelligence and Security Center, is the U.S.’ top 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.
- Axios has found that BGI has engaged in gene-sequencing in Xinjiang, a region where authorities are building up genetics-based surveillance capabilities targeting ethnic minorities.
Of note: 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.
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 by 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.
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.