By: Kelsey Cloud
Imagine receiving a phone call from a Chinese genome sequencing company who tells you that you are on the verge of developing heart disease and recommends a cocktail of medications to alleviate your future symptoms. Would you accept the medication?
On the one hand, if a Chinese company can micro-target you based on something identified in your DNA, why wouldn’t you want to be proactive and begin to solve a problem before it even arises? On the other hand, do we as a nation want another country to systematically eliminate our health care services?
Over the last few decades, the Communist Party of China—the majority political party in the People’s Republic of China (PRC)—has acquired the personally identifiable information (PPI) from an estimated 80% of American adults. In February, the National Counterintelligence and Security Center (NCSC) warned that these efforts to obtain healthcare data from countries around the world posed “serious risks, not only to the privacy of Americans, but also to the economic and national security of the U.S.” The race to control the future of health care through the accumulation of biometric data is the modern space race; however, there is more at stake than national pride.
The Plan: Made in China 2025
PRC’s authoritarian government, led by Xi Jinping, has brazenly declared their aspirations to take the world stage as the dominant leader in this biological age. As the U.S. Chamber of Commerce highlighted in its summary of PRC’s published manifesto, Made in China 2025, PRC designates biotech as a “strategic emerging industry” and prioritizes collecting healthcare information both domestically and internationally. By investing $9 billion into collecting and sequencing genomic data, PRC’s communist regime strives to collect and analyze large genomic datasets in order to globally propel its precision medicine industry.
Rather than administering one-drug-suits-all treatments, precision medicine aims to provide customized treatment for individual patients based on their genetic makeup, lifestyle, and environment. By analyzing how a patient’s genes interact with their environment, precision medicine allows doctors to predict risk of disease and reactions to various medicines.
In the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic, PRC has invested billions of dollars into distributing COVID-19 tests around the world to accumulate genomic data from the global population for precision medicine advances. Propelled by China’s largest genomics company, the Beijing Genomics Institute (BGI), PRC has sold test kits to over 180 countries—establishing its own laboratories in 18—since August 2020.
COVID-19 Laboratories or Modern Day Trojan Horses?
When COVID-19 infections skyrocketed globally, BGI sent a letter to Washington State Governor Jay Inslee, proposing to construct and manage COVID testing laboratories. Promising to provide technical expertise and new equipment, BGI attempted to take advantage of the worldwide crisis with the ulterior motive of using testing to expand their collection of biometric information. Bill Evanina, former NCSC Director and veteran of the FBI and CIA, made a public statement in response to BGI’s letter, warning that “[f]oreign powers can collect, store and exploit biometric information from COVID tests.” Although it remains unclear whether BGI could receive DNA from nasal swabs, BGI has certainly found a way to establish a foothold in countries to start mining data.
The BGI headquarters house and operate the government-funded China National GeneBank, enabling PRC to map the human genome through a biorepository of 20 million genetic samples taken from humans, animals, and plants. Disguised by BGI as a way to foster new medical discoveries and cures that will “advance its Artificial Intelligence and precision medicine industries”, the company’s alleged mission acts as a modern day Trojan horse. By obtaining vast troves of foreign countries’ health data, PRC ultimately endeavors to weaponize that data and systematically eliminate foreign health care services, displacing America as a global biotech leader.
The Chase to Control Biodata: A Modern Space Race
In the 21st century, as global superpowers recognize that their future success hinges on acquiring robust amounts of human biometric data, the race to accumulate the largest, most diverse dataset has become the modern space race. Ultimately, the biggest dataset wins—hence PRC’s aggressive efforts to accumulate data from every country in the world.
As PRC rapidly stockpiles U.S. data to support these economic initiatives, it has simultaneously shut the door on access to their own data, creating a one-way street that thwarts the U.S. from similarly benefiting from Chinese healthcare data. This inequitable relationship could allow PRC to displace U.S. biotech companies as global biotech leaders. Even though new healthcare treatments produced in PRC could benefit American patients, America would ultimately become increasingly dependent on PRC’s drug industry. America’s dependence on China during the COVID pandemic for personal protection equipment would seem trivial compared to the potential for that kind of future dependence. NCSC warns that such a strong reliance on Chinese medicine would likely lead to a transfer of wealth, with the U.S. job market weakening as China’s strengthens.
Data as a Weapon
PRC’s vast accumulation of DNA, PPI, and personal health information could allow them to target specific individuals, including Americans, through extortion and manipulation, such as leveraging someone’s mental illness or addiction for blackmail. Knowledge of top national decision-makers’ DNA could additionally be exploited to bolster PRC’s national defense strategies. By targeting genetic weaknesses, PRC could utilize genetic information to enhance their own soldiers’ strengths and engineer pathogens to exploit American soldiers’ weaknesses. For instance, BGI’s latest research centered on how medicine could interact with genetic makeup to protect a soldier from brain injury or stop altitude sickness from impairing a soldier from performing at maximum strength during wartime.
While BGI claims its collaboration with military researchers was for solely academic purposes, the Human Rights Watch says otherwise: more than a million Uyghurs (Chinese citizens who belong to a Muslim minority) have been jailed in camps, in part due to two subsidiaries of BGI whom allegedly conducted genetic analyses used to facilitate Muslim repression. Deeming these camps a crime against humanity, the U.S. Department of Commerce placed trade sanctions on BGI. The company responded by stating it was not involved in human rights abuses, attempting to persuade the public that the camps are educational and vocational institutions.
The U.S. Must Protect its Citizens Data
While no one chastises a country that conducts medical research to improve treatments and find new cures, PRC’s accumulation of biometric data through BGI poses a substantial risk to the health and safety of not just their own citizens, but also citizens of every country worldwide. With national security, healthcare systems, the economy, and individual privacy on the line, the U.S. must protect its citizens from misuse and theft of their biometric data. America’s $100 billion biotech industry stands to lose their innovative edge in the genomic field to Chinese companies, threatening a long-term cost to the U.S. economy. To remain a global superpower, the U.S. government must ensure that they take an abundance of caution when collaborating with Chinese companies, and that their citizens’ data remains safeguarded from the grip of the PRC.