Prenatal test developed in collaboration with Chinese military collects genetic data
A prenatal test performed by millions of pregnant women around the world was developed by the Chinese gene company BGI Group in collaboration with the Chinese military and is used by the company to collect genetic data, according to a Reuters review of documents accessible to the public.
The report is the first to reveal that the company has collaborated with the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) to develop and improve the test, performed in early pregnancy, as well as the scope of data storage and analysis by BGI. . The United States views BGI’s efforts to collect and analyze human genetic data as a threat to national security.
BGI, China’s largest genomics company, began marketing the test overseas in 2013. Called NIFTY, it is among the world’s best-selling non-invasive prenatal tests (NIPTs). These analyze a blood sample from a pregnant woman to detect abnormalities such as Down syndrome in a developing fetus.
So far, more than 8 million women around the world have had prenatal BGI tests, BGI said. NIFTY is sold in at least 52 countries, including Great Britain, Europe, Canada, Australia, Thailand, and India, but not the United States.
BGI is using leftover blood samples sent to its Hong Kong lab and genetic data from the tests for population research, the company confirmed to Reuters. Reuters found that the genetic data of more than 500 women who took the test, including women from Europe and Asia, is also stored in the government-funded China National GeneBank in Shenzhen, which BGI manages.
Reuters found no evidence that BGI violated any confidentiality agreements or regulations; the company said it obtained a signed consent and destroyed the samples and data overseas after five years. “At no stage of the testing or research process does BGI have access to personally identifiable information,” the company said.
“The non-invasive prenatal test kits marketed by Chinese biotech companies perform an important medical function, but they can also provide another mechanism for the People’s Republic of China and Chinese biotech companies to collect genetic and genomic data from around the world. whole, ”the center said. .
China’s Foreign Ministry said Reuters findings reflected “baseless accusations and defamations” by US agencies.
Other companies selling such prenatal tests also reuse the data for research. But none operate BGI-wide, scientists and ethicists say, or have BGI’s ties to a government or its track record with a national army.
BGI began working with Chinese military hospitals to study fetal genomes in 2010 and has published more than a dozen joint studies with PLA researchers to test and improve its prenatal testing, the Reuters journal showed. of more than 100 public documents.
The PLA General Hospital in Beijing and the Third Military Medical University in Chongqing conducted clinical trials on the NIFTY test in 2011. They worked with researchers at BGI to expand the genetic abnormalities the test looked for, according to articles published in 2019 and 2020.
In one example, the APL General Hospital worked with BGI on China’s first prenatal test for dwarfism, which BGI then brought to market.
In addition, a BGI study published in 2018 used a military supercomputer to reanalyze NIFTY data and map virus prevalence among Chinese women, look for indicators of mental illness in them, and distinguish Tibetan and Uyghur minorities to find links between their genes. and their characteristics.
In addition to genetic information about the fetus and mother, the testing process captures personal information, such as the client’s country, weight, height and medical history, according to the BGI computer code reviewed by Reuters. The customer’s name is not collected.
Reuters spoke to a woman who took the test in 2020, a 32-year-old office administrator in Poland. She said if she had known her data could be shared with the Chinese government, or if she understood the extent of BGI’s secondary research, she would have chosen a different test.
“I want to know what’s going on with such sensitive data about me, like my genome and that of my child,” said the woman, Emilia, who asked to be identified only by her first name.