Exclusive: China gene firm providing worldwide COVID tests worked with Chinese military
Exclusive: China gene firm providing worldwide COVID tests worked with Chinese militaryFILE PHOTO: A technician works at a genetic testing laboratory of BGI, formerly known as Beijing Genomics Institute, in Kunming
By Kirsty Needham
SYDNEY (Reuters) – BGI Group, the world’s largest genomics company, has worked with China’s military on research that ranges from mass testing for respiratory pathogens to brain science, a Reuters review of research, patent filings and other documents has found.
The review, of more than 40 publicly available documents and research papers in Chinese and English, shows BGI’s links to the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) include research with China’s top military supercomputing experts. The extent of those links has not previously been reported.
BGI has sold millions of COVID-19 test kits outside China since the outbreak of the new coronavirus pandemic, including to Europe, Australia and the United States. Shares of BGI Genomics Co, the company’s subsidiary listed on the Shenzhen stock exchange, have doubled in price over the past 12 months, giving it a market value of about $9 billion.
But top U.S. security officials have warned American labs against using Chinese tests because of concern China was seeking to gather foreign genetic data for its own research. BGI has denied that.
The documents reviewed by Reuters neither contradict nor support that U.S. suspicion. Still, the material shows that the links between the Chinese military and BGI run deeper than previously understood, illustrating how China has moved to integrate private technology companies into military-related research under President Xi Jinping.
The U.S. government has recently been warned by an expert panel that adversary countries and non-state actors might find and target genetic weaknesses in the U.S. population and a competitor such as China could use genetics to augment the strength of its own military personnel.
BGI has worked on PLA projects seeking to make members of the ethnic Han Chinese majority less susceptible to altitude sickness, Reuters found, genetic research that would benefit soldiers in some border areas.
Elsa Kania, an adjunct senior fellow at the Center for a New American Security think tank, who has provided testimony to U.S. Congressional committees, told Reuters that China’s military has pushed research on brain science, gene editing and the creation of artificial genomes that could have an application in future bioweapons. She added that such weapons are not currently technically feasible.
BGI’s pattern of collaboration with the Chinese military was a “reasonable concern to raise” for U.S. officials, said Kania.
In response to Reuters’ questions, BGI said it adheres to international standards and Chinese laws related to open science, data sharing and genomic research. It said its collaboration with military researchers was for academic purposes only.
“BGI strongly rejects any accusations about links with the PLA, particularly in relation to our COVID-19 test kits,” it said in a statement.
China’s defence ministry did not respond to requests for comment.
‘ENHANCE’ SOLDIER STRENGTH
Chinese technology companies have come under increasing scrutiny by the United States and were subject to mounting restrictions under the administration of Donald Trump. In November, the Department of Commerce proposed a rule to add gene editing software to the U.S. export control list, saying it could be used to create biological weapons. Officials in the new administration of President Joe Biden have signalled a continued tough approach to what they see as a rising threat from Beijing.
A technology industry panel on artificial intelligence, appointed by the U.S. government and chaired by former Google Chief Executive Eric Schmidt, raised the alarm in October about China’s financial support for its biotechnology sector, its advantages in collecting biological data, and the PLA’s interest in potential military applications.
The panel, which will deliver its final report in March, warned about adversaries using artificial intelligence to identify genetic weaknesses in a population and engineering pathogens to exploit them, and genetic research designed to enhance soldiers’ mental or physical strength.
The panel recommended that the U.S. government “take a more aggressive public posture regarding BGI,” citing national security risks posed by the company’s links to the Chinese government and its trove of genomic data.
The U.S. Department of State did not immediately respond to a request for comment on Reuters’ findings.
In response to Reuters’ questions, China’s foreign ministry said the U.S. government had “wantonly misinterpreted and smeared China’s military-civil fusion policy,” and was imposing unreasonable sanctions that would hamper research.
“China’s military-civil fusion policy is aimed at effectively mobilizing military and civilian resources, coordinating socio-economic growth and national defense development, and benefiting the public with scientific and technological progress. This policy is above board and beyond reproach,” the ministry said in a statement to Reuters.
It added that this was “customary international practice” and said the U.S. government had effectively pursued military-civil fusion for more than 100 years.
BGI Group, based in Shenzhen, has grown quickly by selling genetic sequencing services to universities and health systems around the world and amassing a large DNA databank. It created China’s first cloned pig in 2010.
One science paper authored by BGI founders Yang Huanming and Wang Jian along with the PLA’s Key Laboratory of High Altitude Medicine and the Third Military Medical University focused on experiments with the brains of monkeys suffering altitude sickness.
The study, published in January 2020, stated that it was funded as one of the “key projects of military science and technology” by the PLA. A decade ago, the military university’s research sought to identify genes related to altitude sickness so the PLA could screen for susceptible soldiers. The latest research focused on how drugs interacting with genes could potentially protect a person from brain injury.
An earlier 2017 study designed by BGI’s Wang and published in conjunction with a PLA research centre in Xinjiang looked at the effect of rapid mountain ascent on the bodies of “young, healthy men.”
China has the world’s longest highland border, which includes its border with India, where fighting broke out between the two countries’ troops in 2020. A 2018 paper by the same PLA laboratory stated that “high altitude disease is the main reason for reduced combat effectiveness and health damage to soldiers at high altitudes and influences the results of war.”
Reuters was unable to contact Yang and Wang. BGI said its research collaboration with the PLA lab and the Third Military Medical University, where Yang has been a professor for almost two decades, was “for academic purposes only.”
BGI jointly holds a dozen patents for tests that screen for genomes linked to disease with the military university, the PLA’s Academy of Military Medical Science, which is the top medical research institute of the PLA, and PLA hospitals.
One patent was granted in 2015 to BGI and the Academy of Military Medical Science for a low-cost test kit to detect respiratory pathogens, including SARS (Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome) and coronaviruses.
BGI’s current chief infectious disease scientist, Chen Weijun, is listed as an inventor on the patent documents. Chen was among the first scientists to sequence COVID-19, taking samples from a military hospital in Wuhan, according to sequence data later shared internationally.
Chen is listed as affiliated with the Academy of Military Medical Science in three science papers reviewed by Reuters.In response to Reuters’ questions, BGI said in a statement that Chen has not been affiliated with the PLA’s Academy of Military Medical Science since 2012. Chen did not respond to a request for comment.
BGI’s COVID-19 test kit did not use the method jointly patented with the PLA, the company said in the statement.
Four BGI researchers have also been jointly affiliated with another military institution, the National University of Defence Technology (NUDT), according to publicly available science and conference papers reviewed by Reuters. Hunan-based NUDT is under the direct leadership of China’s Central Military Commission, the top-level body that steers the Chinese military and is headed by Xi.
The NUDT is on a U.S. blacklist as a threat to national security because its Tianhe-2 supercomputer – one of the world’s most powerful – is used to simulate nuclear explosions, according to a Department of Commerce listing. That listing restricts U.S. companies from supplying NUDT with technology.
One researcher, Peng Shaoliang, was instrumental in developing software to speed up BGI’s sequencing of human genomes using supercomputing developed by NUDT.
Peng has won military awards for his work. He is a member of an expert group advising the Central Military Commission’s Science and Technology Commission, set up in 2016 when Xi began promoting a strategy to integrate China’s civilian and military research.
Patent applications in 2020 show Peng is also a member of the PLA’s Institute of Military Medicine. Liao Xiangke, the head of the NUDT’s supercomputer programme and a major general in the PLA, has published seven scientific papers either co-authored with BGI researchers or crediting them for providing data and source code.
BGI said in a statement to Reuters that Peng and Liao “were two collaborators of BGI for the project at the time for the purpose of academic exchange only. Since the project ended BGI has no more affiliation with them.”
Peng and Liao did not respond to requests for comment.
BGI said it uses Tianhe-2 on a commercial basis, as well as other supercomputing platforms, to speed up research. The papers it wrote with the NUDT were for academic purposes only, it said, and were open for public reference, while the programmes themselves have ended.
Tianhe-2 has also been used to solve pharmaceutical, cryptology, engineering and climate problems that have no military application, the company said.
(Reporting by Kirsty Needham in Sydney; Additional reporting by Humeyra Pamuk and Alexandra Alper in Washington and Beijing newsroom; Editing by Kevin Krolicki and Bill Rigby)