A top U.S. counterintelligence agency has warned that the Chinese regime has been storing vast volumes of American health care data for years, including confidential genetic information, which presents significant privacy and national security risks.
The National Counterintelligence and Security Center (NCSC) said in a fact sheet (pdf) released on Feb. 1. Besides to illicit means such as cyber theft, Beijing has used investments in American biotech companies and collaborations with hospitals and universities to get access to U.S. healthcare and genetic data.
The paper said that vast quantities of genomic knowledge (the whole genetic sequence of a person) will fuel advances in the cutting-edge field of precision medicine (or personalized medicine), enabling China to overtake the United States to become a global biotech leader. Such data can also be weaponized for intelligence and military operations targeting people in the world.
The alert came as BGI Company, the Chinese genetics giant, scrutinized its ambitious attempts to promote its COVID-19 test kits and help laboratories around the world, increasing questions about data protection. The company had sold 35 million rapid COVID-19 testing kits to 180 countries by last August and established 58 laboratories in 18 countries. According to a recent CBS report, the company approached several U.S. states last year to develop and operate COVID-19 research laboratories, but none agreed after U.S. officials warned against the collaboration.
BGI claims that it does not get access to patient data from its COVID-19 laboratories or test kits, but former NCSC director William Evanina told CBS that the
laboratories were like Trojan horses: the company could later use the facilities to mine genetic information from Americans by setting up its gene-sequencing equipment in the United States.
Machines used to read and interpret the
entire genome of an individual are sequencers.
After it acquired California-based sequence-machine manufacturer Complete Genomics for $118 million in 2013, the firm was able to gain access to the U.S. market and consumer data, the paper noted. Three years ago, the state-run China Development Bank provided BGI with a $1.5 billion loan.
Chinese businesses, including BGI, have also developed collaborations providing low-costgene sequencing services with U.S. hospitals, universities, and research institutes.
The fact sheet said, “These partnerships allow U.S. entities to expand their research capabilities, while Chinese companies gain access to more genetic data on more diverse sets of people that they can use for new medical products and services.”
A study from 2019 found that at least 15 Chinese companies have been approved to conduct genetic testing or sequencing on U.S. patients, allowing them access to genetic data.
Due to the ethnic diversity of the U.S. population, genomic knowledge from Americans is especially important to China, the paper noted. This is because in research to classify genetic disorders, diverse data sets are more useful. Last year, the Chinese regime passed laws to restrict foreign companies’ ability to get biological data from Chinese citizens.
“A huge domestic database is being built,” FBI Supervisory Special Agent Edward You, a former biochemist, told CBS. And if they can now complement it with data from all over the globe, it’s all about who gets the greatest, most diverse collection of data.
“And so, the ticking time bomb is that once they’re able to do true artificial intelligence, what they can do with that data, they’re going to race.”
If the regime is able to make progress in precision medicine using this vast DNA database, it could outstrip American businesses, jeopardizing U.S. economic stability.
While U.S. patients could enjoy new medicines coming from China, America could be left more dependent on Chinese innovation and drug production for its cures, leading to wealth transfer, co-opting of new companies, and greater jobs opportunities in China,” the sheet said.”
Within China, the regime in the far-western Xinjiang region has already begun manipulating genetic data to track and repress ethnic Muslim minorities, the NCSC said. It initiated a mass collection of local population biometric data in 2014, taking DNA samples, fingerprints, iris scans, and blood samples. Such data feeds into a large database used to track and target people. Researchers and activists have also cautioned that the collection of DNA may be used to promote the harvesting of forced organs by Uyghurs and other Muslim minorities, more than 1 million of whom are held in concentration camp networks.