A former U.S. intelligence official warned this week that the world’s largest biotechnology firm, a Chinese company called BGI Group, is trying to collect Americans’ DNA for China, and could use the data to monopolize critical medical supplies.
BGI Group is trying to build COVID-19 testing labs in U.S. states, a move that caught the attention of U.S. intelligence experts such as William Evanina, who until last week served as the director of the National Counterintelligence and Security Center. In an interview with CBS’ 60 Minutes, Evanina warned that foreign nations providing biotech services in the U.S. could allow them to collect and use biodata to gain a strategic advantage over the U.S.
BGI Group offered to build COVID-19 testing labs shortly after the coronavirus outbreak reached the U.S. in 2020, CBS reported. The biotech firm contacted the office of Washington State Governor Jay Inslee after some of the first U.S. COVID-19 cases appeared in the state. The Chinese firm similarly reached out to New York and California and at least three other states, according to CBS.
Evanina was one U.S. intelligence official who raised the warning about BGI Group’s offer and, as a result, the states declined the Chinese firm’s offers.
“This shows the nefarious mindset of the Communist Party of China, to take advantage of a worldwide crisis like COVID,” Evanina told CBS. “We put out an advisory to not only every American, but to hospitals, associations, and clinics. Knowing that BGI is a Chinese company, do we understand where that data’s going?”
Evanina said China could use the information to project current and future health conditions within the U.S. and then work to gain monopolistic control of the drugs and treatment methods needed to address those health conditions. Chinese control over the medical supplies the U.S. needs could force the U.S. to rely on China in a future medical crisis.
“From a long-term existential cost to our nation, do we want to do that? Do we want to have another nation systematically eliminate our health care services?” Evanina said. “That’s what’s happening.”
At-home DNA test kits also pose a risk. While U.S. intelligence officials warned about BGI Group, millions of Americans have already voluntarily given up their personal biodata through at-home DNA tests offered as services from genealogy companies. Chinese firms have been investing in genealogy companies. China also has a history of hacking U.S. databases, which poses another avenue of obtaining stored U.S. biodata.
The risk potential from at-home testing kits was already enough to prompt the Pentagon to issue an advisory in December of 2019, warning the military not to use them. The Pentagon advisory stated “Exposing sensitive genetic information to outside parties poses personal and operational risks to Services members. These (direct-to-consumer) genetic tests are largely unregulated and could expose personal and genetic information, and potentially create unintended security consequences and increased risk to the joint force and mission.”
Evanina said some people may not realize the value of their biodata.”It’s your past and your future as well as your children’s future. It’s very risky and I think the unknown is probably the riskiest part.”
Concerns about Chinese control of key medical supplies were already raised during the 2020 coronavirus pandemic. U.S. investigations assessed China concealed the severity of COVID-19 to gain an advantage as it hoarded supplies of personal protective equipment (PPE). China rapidly expanded its industry of mask makers and producers of other key PPE and throughout the pandemic, China has attempted to use its offerings of medical supplies to garner positive press and shift international focus away from its initial handling of the outbreak.
Evanina explained, “What happens if we realize that all of our future drugs, our future vaccines … are all completely dependent upon a foreign source? If we don’t wake up, we’ll realize one day we’ve just become health care crack addicts and someone like China has become our pusher.”