Protecting American Data
In the latest chapter of the geopolitical standoff between the US and China, the American House Select Committee on China recently introduced a bill that aims to ensure that “foreign adversary biotech companies” that pose a “US national security concern” do not gain access to American taxpayers’ dollars. The draft law, that came with a companion bill accusing these companies of aiding China’s military, targets specific Chinese companies, contending that these firms pose a threat by exposing sensitive American data and personal health information to the Chinese Communist Party.
WuXi Bio and BGI Pinpointed
Namely, the bill identifies CDMO giants WuXi AppTec and WuXi Bio and the genomics firms BGI Group, MGI and Complete Genomics, and aims to prohibit federal agencies from contracting these companies and their subsidiaries. Moreover, the law would restrict government contracts with any other suppliers that use the identified companies’ equipment or services.
As a result of the proposed Biosecure Act and speculations about its impact, WuXi Bio’s stock has plummeted. However, the company was quick to defend itself in an announcement on the Hong Kong Stock Exchange. According to WuXi Bio, the bill is not appropriate or accurate and contains a “misleading description” of CEO Zhisheng Chen’s background, contending that Chen has not worked for the Academy of Military Medical Sciences or any institution affiliated with the Chinese military.
“The company is committed to supporting its customers globally and to operating with the highest standards of compliance and in accordance with the applicable laws and regulations of all jurisdictions where it has business operations,” read WuXi Bio’s press statement.
Chinese genomic sequencing giant BGI Group, also targeted in the draft law due to its global genomic data collection activities and its alleged links to the Chinese military, additionally appears on a US Department of Commerce export control list due to allegations that it poses a “significant risk” by contributing to Chinese government surveillance.
BGI said that it supports protecting personal data, but that the legislation “which will effectively drive BGI from the US market will not accomplish this goal.” BGI, as reported by Axios, also asserted that it does not have access to Americans’ personal genomic data and denied allegations that it is helping the Chinese government to collect DNA data through the China National Gene Bank.
Previous Concern about Genetic Info Collection
The root of the fears motivating the Biosecure Act can be found in previous concerns about China’s role in the gene-sequencing industry stemming from the COVID-19 pandemic. On the back of the pandemic, BGI distributed its Fire-Eye gene-sequencing technology to over 20 countries with some of the distribution deals coordinated by the Chinese government, and built partnerships for genetic research across the globe. US officials expressed their concern that China was harvesting genetic information from populations around the world, Reuters reported in 2020.
BGI’s links to the Chinese government as the operator of China’s national genetic database and its research in labs connected to the government also sounded the alarm along with BGI’s stock market filing stating that the company aims to help the ruling Communist Party to “seize the commanding heights of international biotechnology competition.”
In 2021, a US intelligence assessment linked BGI to a Chinese-directed global effort to obtain more human DNA. In addition, the American government blacklisted Chinese subsidiaries of BGI for allegedly helping to analyse genetic material gathered in China to assist government crackdowns on ethnic minorities. In a statement to The Washington Post, BGI said that it “does not condone and would never be involved in any human rights abuses.”
While there has been speculation about the possibility of building gene information-based biological weapons that might be able to target certain populations, China’s gene-sequencing efforts appear to be more centred on economic gains rather than military ones as the country announced its plans to become the world’s leader in biotechnology by 2035.
Genetic information “is of enormous value and can be exploited by foreign regimes for a range of security and economic purposes,” said Bill Evanina, director of the NCSC.
“We’re just on the cusp of beginning to understand and unravel what genes do,” Anna Puglisi, former US chief national counterintelligence officer for East Asia asserted. “Whoever gets there first is going to control a lot of really amazing things. But there is also a potential for misuse.”