By Morgan Phillips, Congress Reporter For Dailymail.Com
November 23, 2023
Congress is closing in on an effective ban of a China-based genomics company accused of stealing Americans' DNA and exploiting Covid to collect genetic data.
Republicans in the National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA), Congress' must-pass legislation that sets military policy for the year, launched an effort to ban the firm from doing business with any company that takes U.S. government contracts in what could be a major jolt to the global biotech market.
The sweeping congressional action would jolt an over $25 billion market and could reshape the current geopolitical posture between the world’s two superpowers.
The Shenzhen-based company, known as BGI Group, has close ties to the Chinese Communist Party - and is legally required to share the data it collects with the CCP.
And yet, it's been operating within the U.S. for years - its regional headquarters is in San Jose, California .
'They're kind of the Huawei for biotech,' Anna Puglisi, senior fellow at Georgetown’s Center for Security and Emerging Technology, told DailyMail.com of BGI. 'They're not a neutral actor.'
The U.S. banned the sale and import of new equipment from the Chinese telecoms giant last year due to spying concerns.
Rep. Mike Gallagher, R-Wis., chair of the China Competition Select Subcommittee, led the effort with an amendment to essentially ban the company in the House's version of the National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA).
Sen. Bill Hagerty, R-Tenn., led the effort in the upper chamber - offering a Senate-passed motion instruct so the ban would be included in the final version of the NDAA that the House and Senate conference together on.
It's believed that BGI and its operations in the U.S. and throughout the world could give China a leg up in the so-called DNA arms race - prompting alarm that that data could one day be used for a bioweapon.
U.S. officials have noted that BGI was picked by the Chinese government to operate China National GeneBank, a government-owned repository that now includes the genetic data of millions of people throughout the world. A 2021 intelligence report linked the company to Beijing's directive to obtain more human DNA, especially from the United States.
Chinese academics and military scientists have been known to debate the possibility of creating bioweapons that could target populations based on their genes. But the U.S. has not seen evidence that Chinese companies use foreign DNA for anything beyond research.
'It's totally possible,' Puglisi said when asked if China could use genomic data from the U.S. and other nations for biowarfare.
'With understanding what genes do, you begin to understand host's pathogen interactions, you can understand what makes things more dangerous, more transmissible.'
Winning the technology and research race could be enough for China right now, as it seeks dominance over the budding biotech market. Central to China's plan to become the global economic powerhouse of the 21st century is mastering the human genome.
Chinese hackers in separate instances have already been accused of illegally accessing patient databases of around 80 million Americans through four major U.S. healthcare companies.
In recent years, BGI transformed from a little-known research institute that had decoded the DNA sequence of rice plants and pandas into a global company active in animal cloning and other forms of genome and health research.
BGI's healthcare technology is often offered below market rate since the company is offset by heavy funding from the Chinese government.
But at the same time it is scooping up genetic data from around the world, China has banned the export of gene data from its own nation.
'It's not like we're sharing data back and forth,' said Puglisi.
The intelligence community fired off warning flares about BGI's aggressive efforts during the Covid-19 pandemic to set up labs in 18 countries and sell test kits in 180 nations, in what could be used to bring back genetic data to China.
Two BGI subsidiaries in 2020 were placed on the U.S's trade blacklist for alleged human rights abuses with genetic research they conducted in the Xinjiang province, where China's Muslim Uyghur minority lives. Two more subisidiaries operating in the U.S. were put on the list this year due to 'significant risk' they are contributing to Chinese government surveillance.
'Several years ago we were talking about Huawei. Today we're talking about BGI. Tomorrow, there'll be some other company, but really at the core of it is how do we deal with a nation state that has a totally different system than ours,' Puglisi explained.
'What China does is it uses subsidies on its own market to better its position,' she went on. 'It's about defense, it's about economic security - they really do look at biotech as the next industrial revolution.'