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China’s quest for human genetic data spurs fears of a DNA arms race

BELGRADE — Most of Europe was in lockdown in April 2020 when a plane arrived in the Serbian capital bearing a well-timed gift from the People’s Republic of China. Inside was a Chinese invention called the Fire-Eye, a sophisticated portable lab that could detect coronavirus infections from tiny genetic fragments the pathogen leaves behind.

And that, as Serbians soon discovered, was the least of its capabilities.

The Fire-Eye excelled not only at cracking the genetic code for viruses, but also for humans, with machines that can decipher genetic instructions contained within the cells of every person on Earth, according to its Chinese inventors. In late 2021, with the pandemic still raging, Serbian officials announced they were working with a Chinese company to convert the lab into a permanent facility with plans to harvest and curate the entire genomes, or genetics blueprints, of Serbian citizens.

Serbia’s scientists were thrilled, and the country’s prime minister, Ana Brnabic, praised China for giving the Balkan country the “most advanced institute for precision medicine and genetics in the region.” Yet now, China’s Fire-Eye labs — scores of which were donated or sold to foreign countries during the pandemic — are attracting the attention of Western intelligence agencies amid growing unease about China’s intentions. Some analysts perceive China’s largesse as part of a global attempt to tap into new sources of highly valuable human DNA data in countries around the world.

That collection effort, underway for more than a decade, has included the acquisition of U.S. genetics companies as well as sophisticated hacking operations, U.S. and Western intelligence officials say. But more recently, it received an unexpected boost from the coronavirus pandemic, which created opportunities for Chinese companies and institutes to distribute gene-sequencing machines and build partnerships for genetic research in places where Beijing previously had little or no access, the officials said.

Crew members wave Chinese and Serbian flags after medical experts from China arrived at the Nikola Tesla airport in Belgrade on March 21, 2020, with medical supplies to help the country fight the coronavirus. (Marko Djurica/Reuters)

Amid the pandemic, Fire-Eye labs would proliferate quickly, spreading to four continents and more than 20 countries, from Canada and Latvia to Saudi Arabia, and from Ethiopia and South Africa to Australia. Several, like the one in Belgrade, now function as permanent genetic-testing centers.

“Covid-19,” said one senior U.S. intelligence analyst who closely tracks China’s biotechnology sector, “was the door.”

A spokesman for the Chinese Embassy in Washington rejected any suggestion that Chinese companies had improperly gained access to genetic data. The spokesman, Liu Pengyu, said the Fire-Eye labs helped many countries battle a dangerous pandemic and continue to play a vital role in screening for cancer and other diseases. BGI Group, the Shenzhen-based company that makes Fire-Eye labs, said it has no access to genetic information collected by the lab it helped create in Serbia.

But U.S. officials note that BGI was picked by Beijing to build and operate the China National GeneBank, a vast and growing government-owned repository that now includes genetic data drawn from millions of people around the world. The Pentagon last year officially listed BGI as one of several “Chinese military companies” operating in the United States, and a 2021 U.S. intelligence assessment linked the company to the Beijing-directed global effort to obtain even more human DNA, including from the United States.

The U.S. government also has blacklisted Chinese subsidiaries of BGI for allegedly helping analyze genetic material gathered inside China to assist government crackdowns on the country’s ethnic and religious minorities. BGI, in a statement to The Washington Post, characterized the U.S. actions against the company as “impacted by misinformation” and said BGI Group “does not condone and would never be involved in any human rights abuses.”

“None of BGI Group is state-owned or state controlled, and all of BGI Group’s services and research are provided for civilian and scientific purposes,” the company said.

Scientists work in a Fire-Eye lab in Belgrade in May 2020. China has donated scores of the labs. (Marko Djurica/Reuters)

Beijing’s drive to sweep up DNA from across the planet has occasionally stirred controversy, particularly after a 2021 Reuters series about aspects of the project. Chinese academics and military scientists have also attracted attention by debating the feasibility of creating biological weapons that might someday target populations based on their genes. Genetic-based weapons are regarded by experts as a distant prospect, at best, and some of the discussion appears to have been prompted by official paranoia about whether the United States and other countries are exploring such weapons.

U.S. intelligence officials believe China’s global effort is mostly about beating the West economically, not militarily. There is no public evidence that Chinese companies have used foreign DNA for reasons other than scientific research.

China has announced plans to become the world’s leader in biotechnology by 2035, and it regards genetic information — sometimes called “the new gold” — as a crucial ingredient in a scientific revolution that could produce thousands of new drugs and cures. If it wins the technology race, China stands to gain significant economic and strategic leverage against its chief rival, the United States, said Anna Puglisi, formerly the U.S. intelligence community’s chief national counterintelligence officer for East Asia.

‘We’re just on the cusp of beginning to understand and unravel what genes do,” said Puglisi, now a senior fellow at Georgetown University’s Center for Security and Emerging Technology. “Whoever gets there first is going to control a lot of really amazing things. But there is also a potential for misuse.”

A race for DNA dominance

A billboard, seen in Belgrade in March 2020 with the words “Thanks, Brother Xi” and an image of Chinese leader Xi Jinping, is one way that Serbian officials and business leaders expressed gratitude to China for sharing coronavirus supplies and expertise. (Andrej Isakovic/AFP/Getty Images)

In China’s strategic plan for becoming the premier global power of the 21st century, few fields loom larger than the struggle to become master of the human genome.

In 2015, Beijing announced its “Made in China 2025” plan, which listed biotechnology as a top target for government investment and a pillar of the country’s economic future. A year later, as a step toward fulfilling that vision, the ruling Communist Party launched a $9 billion program intended to make China a global leader in genetic sciences, starting with a massive effort to collect and analyze human DNA.

At the time, the discovery of gene-editing tools such as CRISPR was raising hopes for novel cancer cures and possible treatments for hereditary diseases long considered incurable. With hefty investments in the field, China signaled that it intended to compete and win in the international competition to bring new gene-based medicines and therapeutics to the market.

“If China can become the sole or main supplier of an important new medicine or technology, they will gain leverage,” according to a senior U.S. intelligence official who closely tracks China’s biotech sector. The official, like others, spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss sensitive assessments of China’s strategic trajectory. “If China acquires a critical mass of data — and if they are able to analyze and exploit the data — they can co-opt the future.”

Getting to that critical mass of data is not easy, because not just any DNA will do. To develop drugs for a global market, China needs highly diverse sources of genetic information along with individual patient histories, which provide critical context, researchers say. So, beginning early in the past decade, China began to ramp up its acquisition of such records.

A facility with the world’s biggest single repository of genetic information is pictured in Shenzhen, China, at a government-funded, 11-acre computing center operated by BGI just north of Hong Kong. (TPG/Getty Images)

In 2013, Complete Genomics, a San Jose company and a U.S. leader in gene-sequencing technology, was purchased for $118 million by BGI Group, a Chinese company formerly called Beijing Genomics Institute. At the time, BGI was in the process of constructing the China National GeneBank, which it would manage on Beijing’s behalf as the country’s first national-level storage facility for genetic information. It also had been bolstered by a $1.5 billion cash infusion from the China Development Bank to fuel its quest to become a global competitor in the booming market for genetic sequencing equipment.

BGI, in a statement to The Post, said its corporate family is engaged in “globally recognized scientific research” in adherence to “all required laws and regulations,” and it has provided crucial help to countries fighting covid-19 and other health crises.

“We believe in transparent, collaborative research and openly sharing results,” BGI said. “This approach, carried out to global scientific and ethical standards, has underpinned our work since the Human Genome Project in 1999 and has led to major advances in life sciences as well as a better understanding of biodiversity and the world around us.”

BGI’s acquisition of Complete Genomics positioned the company as a global player in the highly competitive market for gene-sequencing technology. BGI acquired the patents to the American firm’s DNA-sequencing machines and soon began making and selling the equipment through a spinoff company that remains part of the BGI family.

By 2019, through business partnerships and stock purchases, nearly two dozen Chinese companies had acquired rights to genetic data and other private records of U.S. patients, according to a 2019 report prepared by the U.S. government’s U.S.-China Economic and Security Review Commission.

During the same period, U.S. law-enforcement officials were tracking hacking attempts involving companies with large troves of genetic data. A Justice Department indictment in 2019 accused Chinese operatives of illegally accessing patient databases at four U.S. companies. The hackers are believed to have siphoned the private health-care data, including DNA information, of more than 80 million Americans, according to prosecutors.

Fears about China’s misuse of DNA data has triggered a backlash in North America and Europe in recent years. BGI, whose products include a popular neonatal genetic screening kit called NIFTY, sold in more than 50 countries, has come under scrutiny amid concerns that China might exploit the private health information of millions of pregnant women. Norway’s national Consumer Council last year issued a warning to women using the tests, citing the risk that private information might be accessed by the Chinese government. Health officials in Germany and Slovenia also said they were investigating potential misuse of data from the neonatal tests by China. BGI says no personal data from NIFTY tests was retained by the company or transferred to China.

The pandemic presented China’s biotechnology firms with an unexpected opportunity. In January 2020, less than a month after Chinese officials reported the first illnesses from a novel coronavirus in Wuhan, China, BGI Group became involved in early efforts to decipher the entire genome of what became known as SARS-CoV-2. Within weeks, BGI would quickly follow up by offering commercial tests for the new virus, and China would donate millions of its test kits to countries around the world.

Serbian Prime Minister Ana Brnabic meets experts at the April 2020 opening of a Fire-Eye lab in Belgrade. (Xinhua News Agency/Getty Images)

Also in January 2020, amid the virus’s rapid spread across the planet, BGI unveiled a new portable coronavirus testing facility, called Huo-Yan in Mandarin — “Fire-Eye” in English. The name is derived from a mythical Chinese monkey-king who could see through disguises to spot impostors in the royal palace.

Over the following months, BGI would manufacture about 100 labs in different configurations. The most visually striking are “air labs,” which are contained within a shell of soft plastic that can be quickly inflated — like a moon bounce at a children’s party. The labs’ interiors are outfitted with sophisticated machines built for what the company calls “high-throughput nucleic acid detection.” A company shareholder’s report describes the lab as an “all-in-one” system that also “builds a genetic cloud computing platform through comprehensive use of big data.”

BGI said the sophisticated gear was in keeping with the company’s belief in the “open sharing of scientific tools and discoveries” to provide “the greatest benefits for all of humanity.” But a 2020 report by the U.S.-China Economic and Security Review Commission offered a harsher assessment of the Fire-Eye labs’ purpose:

“These labs,” the report said, “are providing Chinese researchers with heterogeneous genetic data to serve Chinese ambitions to dominate the biotech market.”

Coronavirus testing as Phase 1

The Fire-Eye lab is displayed at an expo center in Nanjing, China, in July 2021. More than 20 countries now have the mobile labs. (Imaginechina/AP Images)

The arrival of Serbia’s first Fire-Eye lab in April 2020 was accompanied by as much fanfare as could be mustered in a country under a strict lockdown. Some of the Balkan country’s top leaders came out in surgical masks to fist-bump the Chinese diplomats and to formally thank Beijing for providing crucial help. Serbia would receive two of the labs, and about 20 other countries, mostly in Africa and the Middle East, would get at least one.

“We have received support and help from China in medical supplies, experts, technology and experience from our first day of battling the coronavirus,” Brnabic, the Serbian prime minister, told representatives from BGI after the labs arrived that April. “Without Chinese help, we would not be able to win the battle.”

Serbia, with its population of about 7 million, would end up reporting 18,000 covid-19 fatalities. The death rate was in the highest quintile among countries globally, but slightly better than many of its Balkans neighbors. Serbian officials and business leaders would repeatedly express their gratitude to China, including with giant billboards in the capital city with the words “Thanks, Brother Xi,” a reference to Chinese leader Xi Jinping.

As measured in euros, the European Union’s aid to Serbia during the pandemic far exceeded China’s, but no pro-E.U. billboards sprouted up in a city that still harbors deep resentments over NATO’s bombing of the capital during the war over Kosovo two decades ago.

By the autumn of 2021, the pandemic was starting to fade. But in December, Serbia announced that, with China’s help, it had converted the Belgrade lab into a permanent facility for genetic testing. The equipment was moved to the capital’s outskirts, and Chinese and Serbian officials again gathered to inaugurate “the Serbian Genome Sequencing and Bioinformatics Center,” the first lab in the country to specialize in deciphering the whole genomes of human subjects. The equipment would be Chinese, officials said, and BGI would provide Chinese experts to help set up the lab and train its staff.

Chinese billionaire and Alibaba co-founder Jack Ma’s donations of testing kits, masks and protective gear for coronavirus centers in Kenya are unloaded in Nairobi in March 2020. (Tony Karumba/AFP/Getty Images)

The Belgrade lab maintains a low profile. It occupies a small space inside a freshly painted, three-story office building in a mostly residential area several miles from the city’s universities and commercial center. A Serbian flag and an understated sign announces the lab’s presence in Serbian and English. A lone guard shooed away uninvited visitors from the covered portico on a recent summer evening.

Jelena Begovic, a Serbian scientist who oversaw the Fire-Eye lab in its first two years, was recently promoted to run Serbia’s Science Ministry. She declined a request for an interview, and her office did not respond to a request for a tour of the facility. Begovic, in public comments about the repurposed lab, said Serbia had imposed strict security and privacy standards and followed “responsible” guidelines on the sharing of data.

BGI, in a statement to The Post, said the lab is “owned and managed by Serbia, not BGI,” and while the company provides equipment, know-how and training, it has “no access to data.” Yet a BGI press release last year appeared to suggest at least a limited data-sharing arrangement during the Belgrade lab’s start-up phase. To ensure quality control, “the local [Belgrade] team is benchmarked against the sequencing results that a more established team at another location is churning out,” it said. There are no other whole-genome sequencing centers in Serbia.

Shortly after the temporary Belgrade lab opened, Begovic also appeared to acknowledge that sharing data with BGI was a component of Serbia’s partnership with the Chinese company.

“Information is nowadays sometimes more valuable than gold,” Begovic said in response to a media query. “In that sense, this is also a source of information for them regarding this region.”

BGI corporate documents in 2022 acknowledged that the company “seized the opportunity” during the pandemic to “expand the global precision medicine service system” with its network of Fire-Eye labs. A shareholders report listed the labs as among 350 overseas partnerships that provided “advanced genomic research platforms and bioinformatics analysis capabilities worldwide.”

Some of the labs provided by BGI and its charitable subsidiary, the Mammoth Foundation, were temporary: In 2022, Saudi Arabia set up testing sites in Mecca before the Hajj pilgrimage, and Ethiopian officials installed a Fire-Eye laboratory in a terminal of the Addis Ababa airport. Other agreements seemed more permanent, as the labs became attached to research centers in Latvia, South Africa, the United Arab Emirates and Serbia. In March 2023, UAE officials announced a National Genome Strategy that aims to map the DNA of every Emirati, using genetic sequencing equipment supplied by BGI. Press releases describing several of BGI Group’s overseas partnerships referred them as true joint ventures with “50-50” ownership or “strategic” collaboration on research.

U.S. intelligence officials said in interviews that they have limited insight into how BGI handles DNA information acquired overseas, including whether genetic data from the Fire-Eye labs ultimately end up in the computers of China’s military or intelligence services.

What is known is that partnerships such as the Fire-Eye labs “are a source of [genetic] sequencing data,” and that data “is available to the Chinese Communist Party and the People’s Liberation Army,” said a U.S. analyst who specializes in China’s biotechnology policy. “Genetic information,” the analyst said, “is regarded by China as an intelligence asset.”

A drive-through coronavirus testing center is set up in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, in February 2021. Ethiopia was one of the countries that had temporary setups for Fire-Eye labs. (Amanuel Sileshi/AFP/Getty Images)

Chinese law makes clear that any information collected using BGI’s machines can be accessed by the Chinese government. A national intelligence law enacted in 2017 stipulates that Chinese firms and citizens are legally bound to share proprietary information acquired in foreign countries whenever requested. Since 2019, China has also overhauled the legal framework governing its own vast genetic resources, redefining them as a strategic national resource and tightly restricting access by foreign entities for reasons including national security. Under current Chinese law, foreign entities are banned from collecting genetic material in the country or moving such resources abroad.

In Latvia, where a BGI subsidiary has opened a local branch to sell genetic sequencing services, officials with the country’s domestic security agency warned customers to exercise caution and not be swayed by the company’s assurances about the data-privacy safeguards.

“Chinese private sector companies are largely under the control of the Chinese government and are required to cooperate with Chinese authorities, including special services, when necessary,” Latvia’s Constitution Protection Bureau said in a statement to The Post.

While declining to discuss the company’s specific record, the bureau said: “The activity of Chinese companies in Latvia is associated with intelligence risks; therefore such companies are under the attention of the security services.”

A debate over weaponizing the genome

In a photo distributed by state-funded Xinhua News Agency, Kominist Asmamaw, a biological laboratory engineer at BGI Health Ethiopia, works in the Fire-Eye lab at the Addis Ababa Bole International Airport in May 2022. (Michael Tewelde/Xinhua News Agency/Getty Images)

Civil liberties groups have documented systematic Chinese campaigns to forcibly collect biometric data from the inhabitants of provinces with large populations of Tibetans and Uyghurs, two minority groups that have been victims of organized Chinese repression. Beginning as early as 2017, police have demanded blood samples as well as iris scans and fingerprints from all adult residents of the country’s western Xinjiang province, according to Human Rights Watch. Xinjiang is home to 12 million predominantly Muslim Uyghurs. A similar campaign was launched in 2020 in the country’s Tibet autonomous region, the group reported.

The DNA collection campaigns were cited by both the Trump and Biden administrations in their actions blacklisting Chinese biotechnology companies in the past three years. In March, U.S. companies were banned from doing business with two subsidiaries of BGI — BGI Research and BGI Tech Solutions — because of the potential for “diversion to China’s military programs,” according to a Commerce Department statement — a claim the company rejects. The Chinese Embassy, in its statement to the Post, said the sanctions were “another example of the United States making up excuses and using all means to suppress Chinese companies.”

Laboratory workers perform DNA tests at BGI in January 2005. BGI performed DNA tests to identify some of the Thai victims of a deadly tsunami that hit a month before. (Andrew Wong/Getty Images)

The singling out of ethnic minorities is intentional, human rights groups say. In the hands of Chinese police officers, biometric data is a powerful tool for identifying people regarded as potential troublemakers. DNA samples can link suspects to protests or help police locate family members who might be subjected to pressure over a relative’s behavior.

“It is part of the architecture of social control, and it’s a very effective psychological pressure tool,” said Yves Moreau, a Belgian computational biologist who writes about the misuse of artificial intelligence and genetic data by governments for surveillance or repression. “Whether the DNA database is effective, there’s a fear that is induced by the large-scale deployment of this technology.”

China’s armed forces also are showing increased interest in genetic sciences.

China says it has no genetically engineered biological weapons and no plans to create them. But prominent military officials have argued publicly that genetics-based weapons are inevitable.

In 2017, an updated version of an authoritative military strategy publication by the People’s Liberation Army-run National Defense University added a section on biological warfare that highlighted the importance of “specific ethnic genetic attacks” in future warfare — a notion that has since been repeated by several Chinese military scientists in the context of deterrence.

“It can be a precise, targeted attack that destroys a race, or a specific group of people, or a specific person; its potentially huge war effectiveness can bring extreme panic to human beings,” reads a piece published in state media in March 2020 by Kang Yaowu, associate professor at the university. “It has a high technological content, low cost, and great threat.”

Whether genetics can become a basis for future weapons remains a subject of speculation. Many experts believe that biological weapons that select targets based on their DNA makeup are not technically feasible today and may not be for many years, or perhaps decades.

A 2021 U.S. study by American weapons experts concluded that Beijing’s interest in genetic weapons is driven partly by a perception that China would be especially vulnerable if its adversaries develop the technology first. Compared with other countries — and especially the United States — China’s population is broadly homogenous, with more than 90 percent of its people being ethnic Han Chinese.

“China appears to recognize its own vulnerability to genetic targeting,” write the authors of the 2021 “Scientific Risk Assessment of Genetic Weapon Systems,” published by the James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies in Monterey, Calif. The study notes that U.S. military officials also are “concerned about the possibility of genetic weapons” and have undertaken studies, including a 2020 report by the National Academy of Sciences, to assess whether the country is at risk.

In a photo distributed by state-funded Xinhua News Agency, the Fire-Eye mobile lab is inflated inside a sports venue in Beijing in June 2020. (Chen Zhonghao/Xinhua News Agency/Getty Images)

U.S. officials and experts acknowledge uncertainty about China’s ultimate intentions. For now, through the amassing of large quantities of DNA data, Beijing is creating an asset it can use in the future — as an economic resource, or perhaps in other ways. The objectives of companies acquiring the data “often conveniently, and not necessarily coincidentally, align with Beijing’s national and global objectives,” said Elsa Kania, a researcher specializing in Chinese military strategy and emerging technologies and an adjunct senior fellow at the Center for a New American Security, a Washington think tank.

“BGI has positioned itself as a national center of gravity for large-scale collection of national genetics and genomics information,” Kania said. “And that kind of biodata is believed — by the Chinese Communist Party, by Beijing, by Chinese companies like BGI — to be potentially strategically advantageous.”

Brown reported from Washington. Cate Cadell in Washington contributed to this report.

About this story

Story editing by Peter Finn. Project editing by Courtney Kan. Photo editing by Jennifer Samuel. Design and development by Kat Rudell-Brooks and Yutao Chen. Design editing by Joe Moore. Copy editing by Melissa Ngo and Wayne Lockwood.

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