China has been accused of stealing a lot of things from America: intellectual property, “jobs and wealth,” even our beloved role as the world’s biggest jerk. Now, U.S. national security officials warn that America’s greatest adversary wants to steal our genetic makeup, too.
The Chinese biotech firm BGI Group recently offered to “build and run” covid-19 testing centres in multiple U.S. states — including California, New York, and half a dozen others — but Bill Evanina, one of the top federal intelligence officials in the country, issued a dire warning against it, according to a new report from “60 Minutes.”
Evanina, who at the time served as director of the National Counterintelligence and Security Centre, sent a bulletin to governments and hospitals warning them that “foreign powers can collect, store and exploit biometric information from covid tests.” In a recent CBS interview, Evanina made an even bolder claim: that the reason the Chinese are trying to collect Americans’ data is to “win a race to control the world’s biodata.”
Indeed, warnings about China’s alleged desire to gobble up the world’s genetic data and use it for nefarious purposes have been ongoing for some time. It’s true that China has an extensive domestic DNA collection program, having launched an initiative to create a national genetics database in 2017. Concerns exist that this data will be used to control trends in medicine and pharmaceuticals, or to engineer bioweapons.
The genomics firm at the centre of the most recent drama, BGI, is one of the biggest in the world. The company, which specialises in genome sequencing, substantially increased its operations when covid-19 struck last year. As the virus got underway in the U.S., an affiliate of the company began “approaching city, county and state officials with offers to sell supplies and help set up entire labs, proposing to export a rapid testing model that they said had helped contain China’s outbreak,” the Washington Post reports. BGI has denied that it wants to collect American DNA via covid tests.
National security concerns about the DNA threat seem to boil down to the idea that if the Chinese have too much data on our genetics it will give them undue influence over us politically. A 2019 report prepared for the U.S.–China Economic and Security Review Commission claims that China might use the DNA it has collected to make targeted attacks on “sensitive US persons,” but doesn’t elaborate further on how or why this would occur:
China’s efforts to acquire US health data combined with limited data protections by the US raise questions about national security. Theoretically, access to private information on security sensitive US persons creates a risk of blackmail and may reveal health conditions exploitable in a targeted attack, although no public reports suggest this has yet happened or is a current aim of the Chinese Government or industry.
Evanina’s more recent comments echo this fear — but extrapolate it to a far more catastrophic outcome. CBS reports:
One worry for Evanina and others is control over biodata that can lead to the complete control over health care: if a person’s current or future medical condition is known through DNA and other data, the entity that knows it can gain a monopoly over the therapy or drugs to treat them.
“This shows the nefarious mindset of the Communist Party of China, to take advantage of a worldwide crisis like covid,” Evanina told NBC. “We put out an advisory to not only every American, but to hospitals, associations, and clinics. Knowing that BGI is a Chinese company, do we understand where that data’s going?”
At the same time, it can’t help but be noted how China’s advances in biotechnology appear to be spurring the U.S. to do the same, as pressures mount for the federal government to invest further in similar DNA collection and research. The same U.S.–China Commission report claims that America already “maintains a superior biotechnology innovation” than China but that “continued investment by the US in its own biotechnology industry will go a long way toward limiting the effectiveness of China’s efforts to close the biotechnology gap between the two countries.”
Yes, Mr. President, we must not allow a global biodata gap! Dr. Strangelove fans will get the reference.