Mind Matters Natural and Artificial Intelligence News and Analysis
A Chinese man, wearing a face mask to protect himself from the novel coronavirus 2019-nCoV or COVID-19 is riding a scooter in Taipei, Taiwan.
Image licensed via Adobe Stock

COVID Helped China Get Ahead on Genetic Therapies

Why is China trying to lead the world in genetic technology?

According to a recent Washington Post article, the COVID-19 pandemic was a boon for China’s ambitions to be the world leader in precision therapeutics and genetic technology. China’s premier genetic sequencing company, BGI, set up over 100 portable gene sequencing labs in twenty countries, concentrated mainly in the Middle East and Africa, ostensibly to provide free or reduced-priced COVID-19 tests. The Washington Post article focused on Serbia, in Central Europe, where BGI delivered it’s pop-up COVID-19 testing labs, called “Fire-Eye,” named after the Monkey King, a popular Chinese mythical creature. BGI will set up permanent labs in Serbia for other genetic testing, where it will acquire human genome information on its population. In exchange for the lab donations, Serbian leaders have publicly thanked China and Xi Jinping. The article includes a picture of a billboard in Belgrade with “Thanks, Brother Xi” on it. Notably, the European Union gave Serbia more money than China did, but did not receive the same public recognition.

BGI has already been under scrutiny for using gene sequencing from prenatal genetic testing (NIFTY tests) as a means to acquire diverse genetic data for purposes that the mothers did not consent to. In 2021 Reuters ran a special report on BGI’s prenatal tests, specifically the way BGI exploits lax informed consent and data sharing rules for genetic information. (See “China’s Gene Giant Harvests Data from Millions of Women”) Furthermore, BGI’s prenatal tests, which were sold in over 50 countries, send genetic data back to China. BGI has ties to the Chinese military. Early in the pandemic, the United States turned down BGI’s offer for assistance after an unclassified intelligence brief indicated the company was a national security concern because of BGI’s links to the Chinese military. Some likened BGI’s Fire-Eye labs to a “a corporate Trojan Horse” allowing BGI to acquire more genetic data from American companies. 

(See The National Counterintelligence and Security Center “Safeguarding our Future” bulletin from February 2021 “China’s Collection of Genomic and Other Healthcare Data from America: Risks to Privacy and U.S. Economic and National Security”)

According to a senior U.S. intelligence officer that spoke to the Washington Post on condition of anonymity, “If China can become the sole or main supplier of an important new medicine or technology, they will gain leverage.” In order to do this, China needs a large amount of diverse genetic data. “If China acquires a critical mass of data — and if they are able to analyze and exploit the data — they can co-opt the future.”

Since 2015 Beijing has been on a mission to ensure China is the leader in genetic sequencing and therapeutics, and BGI has been at the forefront of China’s global ambitions. As part of the “Made in China 2025” plan, BGI has spearheaded the effort to collect genetic information from as many people across the globe as possible.  Over the last 10 years, China has been working to become the global leader in genomic medicine and therapeutics through legal and illegal means as well as by exploiting ethically blurry practices in genome data acquisition.

The pandemic opened the door for BGI’s portable Fire-Eye labs. The Washington Post reports:

Over the following months, BGI would manufacture about 100 labs in different configurations. The most visually striking are “air labs,” which are contained within a shell of soft plastic that can be quickly inflated — like a moon bounce at a children’s party. The labs’ interiors are outfitted with sophisticated machines built for what the company calls “high-throughput nucleic acid detection.” A company shareholder’s report describes the lab as an “all-in-one” system that also “builds a genetic cloud computing platform through comprehensive use of big data.”

In 2021 The Wire China profiled BGI from its founding in the 1990s, to its work on the U.S. Human Genome Project, which was recognized by President Clinton at the time. BGI houses China’s National GeneBank, which is a repository of genetic information for sharing for research purposes. A 750-page U.S. Intelligence assessment from early 2021 said BGI “may be serving, wittingly or unwittingly, as a global collection mechanism for Chinese government genetic databases, providing China with greater raw numbers and diversity of human genome samples as well as access to sensitive personal information about key individuals around the world.” (Quoted in “The Jolly Gene Giant” by Brent Crane, The Wire China, 03/21/21.)

In 2013, BGI acquired California-based Complete Genomics after out-bidding U.S.’s Illumina using billion-dollar loans from the Chinese State bank. This gave BGI the gene sequencing hardware it needed to scale up its genome technology. Prior to that, BGI had to outsource its sequencing to the U.S. After acquiring Complete Genomics, it not only had access to hardware, but also Complete Genomics patents and genomic data.

China is interested in acquiring a diverse set of genomic data so it can be the frontrunner in precision and genomic medicine. Notably, China’s population is ethnically homogenous, with 90% of Chinese residents ethnically Han. The United States, on the other hand, has a diverse population and therefore, a more diverse dataset of genes. To compete with the U.S., China would necessarily need to expand its genomic acquisition outside of its borders.

China Wants to Corner the Market on Gene Therapies

“What happens if we realize that all of our future drugs, our future vaccines, future health care are all completely dependent upon a foreign source?” Edward You, an FBI special agent, said on the news program 60 Minutes in January. “If we don’t wake up, we’ll realize one day we’ve just become health care crack addicts and someone like China has become our pusher.” (Quoted in The Wire China in 2021.)

Edward You made these statements in 2021. Since then, several important medications, including childhood antibiotics and certain chemotherapy drugs, have been in short supply due to tensions with China, no financial incentive to manufacture in the U.S., and quality control issues in India. The U.S. and other Western countries are already vulnerable to medicine supply chain issues. With a monopoly on genetic technology, China would have leverage in global politics, including sanctions and withholding life-saving drugs.

China is taking advantage of lax data sharing laws in other countries, including the United States where genomic data privacy is blurry. Furthermore, even though the U.S. and other countries are more willing to share data to spur innovations in medicine, China does not share its genomic data in kind. Both the recent Washington Post article and The Wire China article point to Chinese laws, one enacted in 2017 and the other in 2019, that allow the Chinese government to acquire foreign genomic data acquired from private companies and citizens, while at the same time, private Chinese companies are not allowed to share genomic data with foreign countries. Additionally, foreign companies cannot collect genomic data in China.

The stated reason for inequitable sharing is “national security.” Two subsidiaries of BGI, have already been sanctioned for their part conducting genetic surveillance of Uyghurs and other minorities in Xinjiang. Additionally, China can use genetic information from people in high-power positions for extortion and blackmail. Finally, some are concerned about the creation of genetic weapons, a bioterror tool to target certain ethnic groups. Although, because of China’s ethnically homogenous population, the PRC would be vulnerable if creating such a weapon was feasible.

Consent and Eugenics

BGI’s actions raise several ethics questions. First, is whether those that consented to a COVID-19 test, or a prenatal test, also consented to how their genetic data would be used. Even if the legal lines on how genetic information can be used are hazy, a person has a right to not allow their genetic data to be used for something that would harm others, themselves, or the country they reside in.

Another question is whether genetic information is being used for eugenic purposes. In interviews and presentations, BGI chairman Wang Jian, promotes BGI’s ambitions for health, including its goals to get most of its employees to live past the age of 100.  Wang Jian has said it would be an embarrassment if a BGI employee were to have a child with birth defects.

Data is the new gold, and more data means more money, whether we are talking about genetics, LLMs, or neuroscience. China is using every means, including the pandemic that began in its country, to make sure it has the largest pot.

Heather Zeiger

Heather Zeiger is a freelance science writer in Dallas, TX. She has advanced degrees in chemistry and bioethics and writes on the intersection of science, technology, and society. She also serves as a research analyst with The Center for Bioethics & Human Dignity. Heather writes for bioethics.com, Salvo Magazine, and her work has appeared in RelevantMercatorNet, Quartz, and The New Atlantis.

COVID Helped China Get Ahead on Genetic Therapies