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Chinese gene company collects data from millions of women

Reuters – A prenatal test used around the world will send a woman’s genetic data to the company that developed the test with the Chinese military. The United States perceives a security risk.

A Chinese genetics company is selling prenatal tests it developed in partnership with the Chinese military, and using those tests to collect genetic data from millions of women for research. in-depth about the characteristics of the population.

In March, US government advisers warned that a huge bank of genomic data that BGI Group is amassing and analyzing using artificial intelligence (AI) could give China a huge boost. path to economic and military advantage.

The technology could push China to dominate global pharmaceuticals, the advisers say, and could also potentially lead to genetically engineered soldiers, or pathogens designed to target consumption to the U.S. population or food supply.

Reuters has found that the BGI prenatal test, one of the most popular in the world, is a source of genetic data for this company, which has been working with the Chinese military to improve. population quality” and genetics in combating hearing loss and altitude sickness in soldiers.

The BGI says it stores and reanalyzes blood samples and genetic data left over from prenatal tests sold in at least 52 countries to detect abnormalities such as Down syndrome in the fetus.

Tests called NIFTY (Non-Invasive Fetal TrisomY”) also take genetic information about the mother as well as personal information such as the mother’s country, height and weight.

Code BGI used to analyze a woman’s characteristics and test results (screenshot Reuters video).

8 million women have been tested

To date, more than 8 million women have had BGI prenatal tests globally. The BGI did not say how many women had taken the test abroad and said it only stores location data for women in mainland China.

Prenatal tests are part of a woman’s routine prenatal care. But studies show that they are increasingly productive at gathering information that is potential for research.

For example, a BGI study used a military supercomputer to re-analyze NIFTY data and map viral infection rates among Chinese women, looking for signs of mental illness in them, and pointed to the Tibetan and Uighur minorities to find links between their genes and traits.

The extent of BGI’s accumulation of prenatal data, and BGI’s collaboration with the military in prenatal and neonatal research, have not been previously reported. The company has published at least a dozen joint studies on these tests with the PLA since 2010, testing and improving the tests or analyzing the data they yield.

DNA data collected from prenatal tests in women outside China has also been stored in the Chinese government-funded gene database, one of the world’s largest, confirmed company.

The Shenzhen city government and Beijing’s largest investment agency bought shares in BGI in 2014, which runs the gene data bank.

Screenshot of Reuters video.
Reuters found no evidence that BGI violated patient privacy agreements or regulations. However, the privacy policy on the NIFTY testing methods website says collected data may be shared when it is “directly related to national security or national security” in China.

Beijing made it clear in a 2019 regulation that genetic data could be a national security issue, and since 2015 Beijing has restricted foreign researchers’ access to human genetic data. China. In contrast, the United States and the United Kingdom allow foreign researchers access to genetic data, as part of open science policy.

The BGI said in a statement that it has “never been asked to provide – nor provide – data from its NIFTY tests to the Chinese authorities for national security and defense purposes.” .

The news that BGI has developed prenatal tests with the Chinese military comes as international scrutiny is growing over China’s use of civilian technology to modernize its military. NATO has warned China’s assertive behavior is a systematic challenge, and Beijing has introduced sanctions over alleged human rights abuses in Xinjiang and intensified national security crackdown in the region. Hong Kong.

Photo: Wikimedia/Daniel Case.

The findings provide new insight into how BGI is using massive computing power to unlock genomic secrets.

Earlier, Reuters revealed how the company quickly expanded its genome sequencing labs globally and gained a role in other countries’ health systems and how they worked with the Chinese military. on research from testing a wide range of respiratory pathogens to brain science.

The US National Counterintelligence and Security Center (NCSC) told Reuters it had “serious concerns” about how genetic data is “collected, transmitted, storage and use”.

A 2016 Chinese regulation requires that samples and genetic sequences from tests on Chinese women be kept for at least three years, after which the women can request deletion of the data. For women abroad, the BGI told Reuters it will destroy samples and delete paper records and electronic data after up to five years.

Screenshot of Reuters video

Anna Puglisi, a senior fellow at the Georgetown Center for Security and Emerging Technologies who worked until 2020 as the US government’s National Counterintelligence Officer for East Asia, said BGI. developed thanks to the policies of the Chinese government. “The Chinese state can actually force companies to work with them, in their national security laws,” she said, referring to a 2017 law that requires all Chinese organizations support national intelligence operations.

Being able to understand how physical traits are related to a gene — and thus figure out what genes do, is “really the pinnacle of genomics,” says Puglisi.

“When you can combine large amounts of genomic data – including the genes of both mothers and their unborn children – with their medical and historical data, that is really powerful. “.

“Millionome Database”

Shenzhen-based BGI rose to global notoriety last year after selling or donating millions of Covid-19 test kits and sequencing labs outside of China. US security agencies warn this is part of an effort to collect large amounts of foreign genetic material.

BGI said this year it has built 80 Covid-19 labs in 30 countries, which it plans to reuse for reproductive health screening. The company says its Covid-19 tests do not collect the patient’s DNA.

But their prenatal tests do.

Inside BGI’s offices in mainland China, giant screens update in real time as samples harvested from tests by pregnant Chinese women are uploaded to the National Gene Bank, according to the National Gene Bank. a scientist who was inside the Shenzhen facility and the photos were published in Chinese state media. The screen also shows the location of those women.

BGI told Reuters that the project – called “China’s Millionome Database” – does not contain data on women outside mainland China.

However, online records reviewed by Reuters show that the genetic data of at least 500 women who have taken the NIFTY test, including some outside of China, is stored in the National Gene Bank. China.

The China Gene Bank website acknowledges the “NIFTY database” as one of the “rich sources of biological data”.

The BGI currently discloses 84 genetic conditions affecting pregnancy in women under 40, and sex chromosome disorders can cause mental retardation. BGI patented their tests in 2011 and began marketing them overseas in 2013.

Within three years, more than 2,000 healthcare providers globally sold them, according to BGI marketing materials.

In 2019, the last year before the COVID-19 pandemic, BGI reported that 42 percent of its 2.8 billion yuan ($433 million) revenue came from its reproductive health division. Prenatal tests are the main contributing factor.

Last year, BGI announced that it would “industrialize” genomics, and in April it said a “million-scale” prototype robot capable of sequencing a million genomes per year for its genome population, currently used to process NIFTY tests.

“Military Medical Innovation Project”

BGI has been working with Chinese military researchers to study the genomes of fetuses and infants since at least 2010, when they signed a research cooperation agreement with the Liberation Army General Hospital. People’s Liberation Army in Beijing, a hospital document showed.

The hospital is at the forefront of China’s genetic research on deafness, and the head of the obstetrics department, Lu Yanping, is developing a prenatal test for deafness and Down syndrome.

In April 2011, Lu began a clinical trial of NIFTY with BGI on 3,000 women at the hospital clinic. In August 2010, BGI started working with the 3rd Military Medical University in Chongqing.

Liang Zhiqing, Vice President of the Chinese Army’s Institute of Obstetrics and Gynecology, and BGI researchers have published at least five joint studies based on data from women who have had the test done at their antenatal clinic University.

According to an article in the European Journal of Genetics, Liang’s work was funded by the Chinese government, called the “Military Medicine Innovation Project,” and samples were sequenced in a “laboratory.” joint experience” of BGI at university.

The university and BGI have organized conferences on preventing birth defects and “improving population quality”. The Chinese military has been closely involved in the birth defect prevention platform, led by a key figure in the implementation of China’s One Child Policy, since 2011.

“An untapped resource”

In the scientific journal Cell, BGI researchers say they have performed the largest study of Chinese population genetics with 141,000 repurposed prenatal tests.

Those tests, they said, “provide an untapped resource” for understanding how people’s genes relate to their traits and their susceptibility to the virus.

This can provide “significant mapping power,” they said.

China’s collection and analysis of the DNA of China’s Uighur Muslim community – including systematic collections of samples from residents in Xinjiang – has been harshly criticized.

The US sanctioned two subsidiaries of BGI last year for “abusing China’s DNA collection and analysis schemes to persecute citizens”.

BGI denies it has any involvement in human rights abuses in Xinjiang.

China’s foreign ministry said the health checks of the Uighurs there did not collect biological information such as DNA.

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