BGI Genomics accused of partnering with Chinese military to harvest DNA data from prenatal tests: Reuters

A lengthy report from Reuters claims that Chinese genomic sequencing giant BGI Group developed its popular prenatal test in partnership with China’s military and has been sharing the resulting data from millions of pregnant women around the world with military researchers.

The Non-Invasive Fetal TrisomY diagnostic, or NIFTY test, is used to gather genetic information from pregnant women to detect genetic conditions like Down syndrome in the fetus. It is sold in at least 52 countries—though not the U.S.—and has reportedly been used by more than 8.4 million women around the world.

Testing data is stored by BGI in either its own laboratories or China’s national gene bank, which is run by BGI. Those data stores are then used in studies—reportedly launched in collaboration with the People’s Liberation Army—that use artificial intelligence to analyze the data to uncover genetic links to widespread health conditions, according to Reuters' investigation.

BGI refuted the report’s biggest claims in a July 9 statement. The company asserted, among other points, that it developed the prenatal test without military support and that “BGI has never been asked to provide, nor has it provided data from its NIFTY test to Chinese authorities for national security or national defense security purposes.”

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Reuters, however, said the company has initiated at least a dozen studies alongside the military since 2010. While some of these focused on further testing and development of the prenatal test kits, others were launched to analyze the data collected by the kits.

In the latter category, one research project reportedly mined the test results with a military supercomputer to identify viruses and indicators of mental illness in Chinese women. That study also zeroed in on Tibetan and Uyghur women, searching for a link between their genetics and physical traits, further fueling accusations of experimenting with eugenics that have followed BGI for years.

Though BGI claims it has not provided any NIFTY test data to the Chinese government for military purposes, Reuters notes that the test’s privacy policy allows for government data-sharing in instances when it may be “directly relevant to national security or national defense security.”

Additionally, while test results gathered from women outside of China are stored in BGI’s own Hong Kong laboratory—and, according to the company, destroyed after five years in line with GDPR regulations—those from Chinese women are held in China’s national gene bank, which is run by none other than BGI.

A panel of U.S. government advisors convened in March warned that the massive genetic database could ultimately be used to give China an economic and military leg up over the rest of the world, per Reuters. That advantage could come in the form of rapid development of pharmaceutical products, genetic enhancements for soldiers or even genetically engineered pathogens.

In its statement, BGI said its research initiatives have led to “major medical breakthroughs” and added, “Assertions that BGI is motivated by anything other than the advancement of health outcomes are both deeply disappointing and factually incorrect.”

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The report builds on a previous Reuters investigation published in January that studied dozens of official documents and research papers to uncover a deep and long-standing link between BGI and the Chinese military.

According to that report’s findings, BGI and the Chinese military have collaborated on studies of respiratory infections, brain science and more, including a study of potential genetic treatments that could make the Han Chinese population immune to altitude sickness.

Like the report on the prenatal tests, the January investigation also prompted concerns from U.S. counterintelligence experts and government advisors, who noted that those research projects could potentially be used to engineer bioweapons or even so-called “super soldiers.”

BGI once again rejected those claims, telling Reuters that its research projects adhere to international data-sharing and genomic research standards. It also noted that it has teamed up with the military solely for academic purposes, adding, “BGI strongly rejects any accusations about links with the PLA.”