A group of British lawmakers called for an urgent investigation into a Chinese company that sells pregnancy screening tests in the UK.
The genomics company, BGI, had three of its subsidiaries blacklisted by the U.S. Commerce Department in March over their alleged involvement in military programs and the repression of ethnic minorities in China.
Citing a Reuters report that said BGI had used a military supercomputer to re-analyse data collected through its NIFTY pregnancy test, the cross-party group of MPs and Peers urged the information tzar to look into how the company handles data of pregnant women.
The NIFTY test, which stands for the Non-Invasive Fetal TrisomY test, is a screening test that can detect some genetic anomalies such as Down Syndrome and Edwards Syndrome.
According to the NIFTY test website, over 9 million tests have been carried out by clinicians in more than 80 countries. A separate BGI webpage said 10 million NIFTY tests had been carried out by the end of 2021.
But Reuters in 2021 said the company had developed the tests with the Chinese military and has used to data to “map the prevalence of viruses in Chinese women, look for indicators of mental illness in them, and single out Tibetan and Uyghur minorities to find links between their genes and their characteristics.”
The report said the company had confirmed that data collected from overseas prenatal tests were also stored in the Chinese regime’s gene database, but claimed the database only held location data on women in China.
At the time, BGI was also selling the product in the UK but had not registered it with the UK’s Medicines and Healthcare products Regulatory Agency (MHRA). The test has since been approved by the MHRA.
Under the Chinese regime’s National Intelligence Law, all organisations and citizens are required to “support, assist, and cooperate with national intelligence efforts.”
BGI previously denied it had provided NIFTY data to Chinese authorities for national security or national defense security purposes. It has also denied involvement in human rights abuses or being state-owned or state-controlled.
The logo of Chinese gene firm BGI Group is seen at its building in Beijing, on March 25, 2021. (Carlos Garcia Rawlins/Reuters)
Writing to Information Commissioner John Edwards on Monday, lawmakers praised the commissioner for issuing a fine to TikTok—a Chinese social media giant—for misusing children’s data, calling it “an exemplary step in the right direction, and said they believe there are “further risks involving the most intimate sources of our personal data being used.
The letter said it’s “vital” that “consumers have full transparency in order to carefully assess the risks associated with sharing such data with state-linked Chinese companies.”
“We must also ensure patients are told about the importance and far-reaching implications of their genetic information—and the risks associated with turning it over,” the letter reads.
“Most importantly, we must ensure companies like BGI are completely transparent about their data collection and usage, and what Chinese laws they are subject to.”
Alistair Carmichael, Liberal Democrat MP and co-chair of the all-party parliamentary group on Uyghurs, said not blacklisting BGI is “a national security failing of the highest order.”
Former health minister Lord Bethell said he admires the “phenomenal technology” developed by BGI and would “love to think” the company is respectful of privacy and security and individual rights, “but we know from the practices of the government in China that it is using genomic data for surveillance.”
“We have got to ask ourselves can we really trust BGI to be doing genomic testing here in the UK,” he said.
Other signatories of the letter include UK Director of the World Uyghur Congress and Executive Director of Stop Uyghur Genocide Rahima Mahmut and Conservative and Labour MPs from the Health and Social Care Committee, the Business and Trade Committee’s Sub-Committee on National Security and Investment, the Foreign Affairs Committee, and the Treasury Committee.
Science Minister George Freeman said in March that the government was examining a detailed assessment of “all the China research and innovation links” with the UK, “looking in particular at some of the actors such as BGI that we know to be aggressive in their international acquisition of intellectual property.”
Technicians work at a genetic testing laboratory of BGI in Kunming, Yunnan Province, China, on Dec. 26, 2018. (Stringer/Reuters)
BGI Genomics is one of the companies that won Public Health England’s COVID-19 contracts in 2021, official records show. According to the Daily Mail, it was a COVID-19 testing contract worth £11 million.
It was founded in 1999 to represent China in the “Human Genome Project,” which it hailed as one of the greatest scientific projects of the 20th century, along with the Manhattan Project and Apollo Program.
In 2008, the world-leading genomics company also took part in the “1,000 Genomes Project,” another global collaboration project that created a catalogue of common human genetic variation.
According to the BGI website, it has continued exchanges with international partners in recent years, visiting 24 countries and areas last year, including the UK, and had exchanges with 35 top universities and research institutes to push forward the global initiative on SpatioTemporal Omics that it launched in May 2022 to accelerate research in areas such as specific evolution, fetal development, and pathology.
On March 2, the U.S. Commerce Department added (pdf) three BGI Group subsidiaries to its export restrictions entities list, stating that the decision was based “upon information that indicates their collection and analysis of genetic data poses a significant risk of contributing to monitoring and surveillance by the government of China, which has been utilized in the repression of ethnic minorities in China.”
The document noted that information also indicates that “the actions of these entities concerning the collection and analysis of genetic data present a significant risk of diversion to China’s military programs.”
BGI stated at the time that it disagrees with the decision, claiming it “may have been impacted by misinformation.”
“BGI Group’s work strictly abides by local, regional, and global moral and ethical standards, and adheres to all required laws and regulations,” the company said in a statement.
“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,” it added.