How China’s BGI Is Taking Over the Human Genome
In this three-part series, Anders Corr criticizes China’s harvesting of genetic information on a global scale. Part I details the harvesting by BGI, a Shenzhen-based company that is the object of U.S. government warnings. The company’s gene harvesting, through prenatal tests, yields gigabytes of data used by the Chinese military for research that singles out the Uyghur and Tibetan minorities, sounds close to eugenics, and could facilitate the next generation of gene-targeted bioweapons. Part II gives the history of BGI, including its collaboration with a Harvard professor’s private company, set up to send genetic data to Hong Kong. Part III reveals a Harvard student’s virtual internship at BGI, and legal strategies for protecting American genetic data from finding its way into China’s military research facilities. The United States and allies should immediately end the sharing of genetic data with China, which does not share its genetic data with foreigners. Harvard should likewise end its irresponsible cooperation with BGI, a Chinese company that is engaged in unethical science, and that is the subject of U.S. government warnings.
On July 8, former Secretary of State Mike Pompeo responded to news of a Chinese genomics company that is harvesting genetic data from around the world, in what could be connected to a Chinese Communist Party eugenics or bioweapons program. “Everything that their government does is connected to the military,” Pompeo said on a podcast. “And everything that comes under the face of their private sector is connected to that government and that military.”
The following day, a German health ministry spokesperson said that the country was taking seriously the news of gene harvesting by a Chinese company, which markets prenatal testing in Germany and other European countries. The spokesperson said that Germany would raise the issue with the European Commission.
Geneticists Wang Jian and Wang Jun founded the Chinese company, now called BGI and based in Shenzhen, in 1999 as a state-backed enterprise that was originally called Beijing Genomics Institute. BGI was founded to develop the Human Genome Project. Wang Jian served as a research fellow in the United States for six years starting in 1988. BGI is partially owned by the Chinese regime, and said in its latest annual report, according to Reuters, that it “has been working hard to promote Chinese technology, Chinese experience, and Chinese standards to ‘go global.’”
While Reuters reported that the BGI test is not marketed in the United States, the popular genetic testing company 23andMe is part-owned by Chinese entities, and there are concerns about whether 23andMe data are being shared, leaked, or hacked by the Chinese regime. In 2020, attempts by a prenatal genetic testing company to establish itself near a military base in San Diego were blocked by the U.S. government.
The U.S. government warned Nevada officials in 2020 not to use a donation of 250,000 BGI coronavirus test kits, facilitated by Peng Xiao, the CEO of G42, who sought to establish a coronavirus testing lab in Nevada. U.S. officials expressed concern about patient privacy, and Nevada turned down the offer. Nevertheless, a similar attempt by BGI to market its coronavirus tests in the United States directly to state, county, and city officials, was in part successful, and resulted in testing centers in California and Kansas.
BGI has prominent academic supporters in the United States, including Harvard geneticist George Church, who since 2007 has served on the company’s scientific advisory board, according to the Washington Post. BGI established an institute in 2017 named the George Church Institute of Regenesis, with a dozen BGI staff in China, that collaborates with Church’s Harvard lab.
The Post summarized Church as saying that the Institute attempts to “synthesize organisms made from human-made DNA, among other projects.” According to the Post, “Church also has a business relationship with BGI: Consumers who want their genomes decoded can send saliva samples to a company he co-founded, Nebula Genomics, which sends them to BGI labs in Hong Kong for sequencing.” Professors who mix their research and business with China, may be incentivized to share more data with the totalitarian country than they otherwise would.
The University of California at Davis also collaborates with BGI.
The Committee on Foreign Investment in the United States (CFIUS) forced a sale of China’s stake in a health-tech company, PatientsLikeMe, in 2019. China’s stake was held by iCarbonX, founded by BGI’s Wang Jun. Approximately 700,000 people have trusted PatientsLikeMe with their health data.
CFIUS was established in 1975 by President Gerald Ford and expanded under President Donald Trump.
A BGI subsidiary called Forensic Genomics International sold Chinese police the DNA collection and analysis supplies used since 2017 on millions of males in China, including children. The men and boys, who had no serious criminal background, could not reasonably have given free consent to the procedures.
BGI and G42, a United Arab Emirates company, started a coronavirus testing lab in 2020 in Abu Dhabi, and BGI established similar labs in Angola, Australia, Brunei, Kazakhstan, Saudi Arabia, Serbia, Sweden, and Togo, according to the Associated Press and Washington Post. Saudi Arabia established six BGI testing labs with 500 Chinese specialists after a call between King Salman and Xi Jinping.
American, British, Japanese, and European values support a policy that strives to keep science open and globally accessible. But these policies are being exploited by the Chinese regime, which can now access genetic data on Western and allied populations, while not offering reciprocity. Such sharing of genetic data by democracies with China is irresponsible given the Chinese regime’s well-documented acts of genocide against the Uyghurs, as well as widespread data theft globally. The failure of U.S. and allied governments to ban China harvesting of women’s genetic data, despite a warning by the U.S. National Counterintelligence and Security Center (NCSC) against BGI and other such China collections, is irresponsible and a dereliction of their most basic governmental duty to protect citizens.
Anders Corr has a bachelor’s/master’s in political science from Yale University (2001) and a doctorate in government from Harvard University (2008). He’s a principal at Corr Analytics Inc., publisher of the Journal of Political Risk, and has conducted extensive research in North America, Europe, and Asia. He authored “The Concentration of Power” (forthcoming in 2021) and “No Trespassing,” and edited “Great Powers, Grand Strategies.”