Biosecurity fears rise amid China’s DNA data rush

Geopolitical tension between Beijing and the West has spilled over into the world of genetic research

Biosecurity is rapidly becoming the advanced guard in the scientific and technological war between China and the alliance of democracies forged by the United States.

In August, rising geopolitical tension spilled over into the world of genetic research, a sector China is determined to dominate. Scrutiny has since intensified after last week’s blog by Rao Yi, the president of Capital Medical University in Beijing. 

“My laboratory has been able to access the Whole Genome Sequencing (WGS) data of 500,000 participants of the UK Biobank, where analysts have revealed the relationship between diseases (and common traits) with gene mutations,” Professor Rao, the former dean of the School of Life Sciences at Peking University, wrote as reported by the Pekingnology newsletter.

“[But] it’s difficult to access sufficient Chinese WGS data,” he said, pointing out that Beijing continues to “restrict the disclosure and sharing of data” in China.

Behind the scenes:

  • The Chinese government is determined to develop the world’s largest bio-database.
  • A report released by American intelligence officials last year revealed the depth of the problem.
  • The National Counterintelligence and Security Center said in a paper that the US needed to better secure critical technologies, The New York Times reported.
  • They included “artificial intelligence, quantum computing, and semiconductors.”
  • Other technologies facing risks related to “the so-called bio-economy.”
  • The “American private sector,” the paper concluded, “has long been in the crosshairs.”

Biobank said data was only given to bona fide researchers.

Delve deeper: There have been calls in the United Kingdom to “review the transfer of genetic data” to a country that is ruled by an authoritarian regime. The UK Biobank “contains the DNA of half a million British citizens.”

Between the lines: “The UK Biobank [reported] that it had about 300 projects under which researchers in China were accessing “detailed genetic information” or other health data on volunteers,” The Guardian newspaper said in August. 

Open policy: “The anonymized data is shared under an open-access policy for use in studies into diseases from cancer to depression. There is no suggestion it has been misused or participants’ privacy compromised,” the media group stressed.

Statement of intent: “[UK] Biobank said data was only given to bona fide researchers, who must agree to store it securely and use it for a specified purpose, adding that it has ‘stringent controls’ in place including ‘rigorous access and ethics checks’,” The Guardian said.

Big picture: Still, Beijing “has a track record of misusing genetic data.” The Chinese Communist Party has also applied coercive tactics on domestic companies in the past. 

What was said: “The counterintelligence center cited a 2019 New York Times report on how China uses genetic tests to track members of the Uyghur [community], a [persecuted] Muslim minority group in Xinjiang,” The New York Times reported.

China Factor comment: A global trawl for DNA information would enable the Chinese government to build an unparalleled database. It would also help Beijing to steal a march on cures from cancer to Covid-type pandemics in a market worth US$1.4 trillion.