Blacklist Chinese genetic sequencing companies, lawmakers argue — citing potential for 'bioweapons,' national security risk
As Chinese biotech companies spread their wings globally, a pair of lawmakers — and known China hawks on the Hill — are calling for a prominent genetic sequencing player to be blacklisted.
Sen. Tom Cotton (R-AR) and Rep. Mike Gallagher (R-WI) singled out Beijing Genomics Institute, which has rebranded itself as BGI Genomics, as a company that should be added to multiple sanction lists along with other, unnamed Chinese biotech companies.
Allowing BGI to access US DNA data, they warned, is a matter of national security because its research with the military “could have an application in future bioweapons.”
In a letter addressed to Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen, Commerce Secretary Gina Raimondo, and Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin, they asked for BGI to be put on the Department of the Treasury’s Non-SDN Chinese Military Industrial Complex Companies List, the Department of Commerce’s Entity List, and the Department of Defense’s list of Chinese military companies.
Founded in 1999 by Chinese scientists who had participated in the Human Genome Project, BGI offers next-generation sequencing services ranging from research to everyday use. During the Covid-19 pandemic, its diagnostics have been deployed in multiple countries — although its attempt to build testing labs in the US was shot down by intelligence officials.
Still, BGI and at least 14 other Chinese healthcare companies perform genetic sequencing for US healthcare patients in other areas.
What makes its tactics to acquire American genomic data aggressive, according to Cotton and Gallagher, is suspected data sharing with the Chinese government and BGI’s “history of collaboration” with the People’s Liberation Army and serving military interests.
They pointed out that the former head of PLA National Defense University “identified biology as one of seven ‘new domains of warfare’ including the possibility of ‘specific ethnic genetic attacks,’ in a 2017 publication.”
A review of 40 publicly-available research papers demonstrates BGI’s work on PLA priorities, such as improved high-altitude soldier performance, neuroscience, and pathogens. BGI’s worldwide prenatal test was itself developed in collaboration with the PLA. BGI has also partnered with the PLA’s National University of Defense Technology (NUDT) to advance bioinformatics research and leverage supercomputers for biological research. Joint BGI-PLA research could have an application in future bioweapons — which is especially concerning because BGI’s national gene bank is presumably made available for military research.
The two also highlighted China’s financial support for the company, including $1.5 billion in state subsidies that allowed it to “undercut the DNA sequencing market,” and a contract giving BGI the responsibility of running China’s national gene database.
“The United States must not turn a blind eye to the threat posed by Chinese biotechnology companies operating at the CCP’s behest,” they wrote. “Blacklisting BGI and its fellow biotech companies will help the United States counter the Chinese Communist Party’s efforts to capture Americans’ most private information—their DNA.”