China biotech firms amass Americans' genetic data, lawmakers warn

US lawmakers on Capital Hill are pushing a vote to restrict US business dealings with Chinese biotech companies over fears that the sensitive health data of Americans will be used for nefarious purposes by Beijing.

In the past twelve months, lawmakers have brought up national security concerns over Chinese technology, Chinese hackers, Chinese drones, Chinese-owned TikTok, Chinese car manufacturers, and even secret Chinese police stations operating in the US.

Now, US lawmakers are raising the red flag against biotech companies owned or controlled by nation-state adversaries and singling out China, which is known for collecting and analyzing mass amounts of sensitive genomic data on the American people.

The House Select Committee on the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) held a hearing on the issue on Thursday, just one day after the US Senate Homeland Security Committee approved a bill that would ban all federal dollars from going toward any Chinese biotech company identified as a risk to national security.

The legislation – titled “The Prohibiting Foreign Access to American Genetic Information Act of 2024” – would prevent any 'at-risk' biotech company, and their subsidiaries, from receiving US taxpayer dollars through federal contracts, grants, and loans.

China planning global DNA database

"My bill to prevent Americans’ DNA from being stolen by Chinese-military-directed biotech companies with US taxpayer $$ is one step closer to becoming law,” said Senator Bill Hagerty (R-TN), who co-introduced the bill.

“Do we want DNA of America's kids in the hands of @BGI_Genomics, @WuXi_AppTec & other China-backed biotech firms?” Hagerty posted on X.

Biological data, such as DNA sequences, can be exploited for military purposes, used to invade privacy, engineer pathogens to target populations or food supply, and violate human rights, according to the bill.

As advancements and investments in biotechnology accelerate, “the US needs to be there first so we can set the rules of the road,” said House Select Committee on the CCP chairman Rep. Mike Gallagher of Wisconsin.

“The CCP is executing a plan to build a DNA database on every man, woman, and child on the planet,” Gallagher said in his opening remarks at Thursday’s hearing.

“The database includes Americans, whose DNA they’re collecting with large cyber hacks, corporate acquisitions, and other methods,” he said.

“We’ve already seen how China is going to use advanced biotechnology,” Gallagher said, ticking off hegemonic practices such as:

  • Forced DNA collection
  • Genetic surveillance
  • Genetic enhancement of soldiers
  • Genetically selective weapons

Chinese biotech 'companies of concern'

According to the US intelligence community, the CCP has put forth concerted efforts to acquire human genetic data through biotech companies, including the BGI Group (formally known as the Beijing Genomics Institute), WuXi AppTec, MGI Tech and Complete Genomics, a life sciences company that has developed a DNA sequencing platform.

In fact, part of the bill would include a fast track ban against all four of the companies.

Chinese biotech companies
US lawmakers say we must put a stop to Chinese biotech companies, Complete Genomics, BGI Group, and WuXi App, from collecting the genetic data of Americans in the name of national security. Image by Shutterstock | Rueters

BGI Group and its subsidiaries were recently added to the US Commerce Department list of foreign entities deemed a national security risk, but the Committee argues that adversarial governments, like the CCP, “often seek ways to get around these restrictions.”

“We have seen this play before with Huawei and America’s telecoms sector,” said Hagerty.

The Committee cites a disturbing 2021 report from Reuters, which found a prenatal test developed by the BGI group in conjunction with the Chinese military was being sold around the world to millions of women in over 50 countries.

The report found leftover blood samples, plus other genetic and personal data collected from the kits, were being sent back to China and used for mass research on population traits.

BGI Group has worked with the Chinese government to “improve ‘population quality’ and on genetic research to combat hearing loss and altitude sickness in soldiers,” according to the Reuters expose.

“It’s important that when Americans undergo typical medical care, such as getting their blood drawn or other tests, they are confident their DNA will not end up in the wrong hands,” said bill co-sponsor Senator Gary Peters (D-MI).

“The CCP is executing a plan to build a DNA database on every man, woman, and child on the planet.”

Chairman of the House Select Committee on the CCP and House Representative Mike Gallagher of Wisconsin.

During the hearing, connections between the Biotech companies and the COVID 19 pandemic were also thrown on the table.

Dr. Jason Kelly, CEO of the American-based and MIT alumni-founded Ginkgo Bioworks, referred to a 2023 report by the Washington Post, noting that “BGI was building out in more than 20 countries, these types of genomic sequencing centers, under the banner of COVID-testing.”

“Our inability to know the source of the [COVID-19] to me, is the largest intelligence failure since 9/11, " he added.

Critics: China unfairly targeted

Although the bill may seem like a slam dunk to officially pass in both chambers, there have been some concerns about its effect on the biotech supply chain for US companies and instability in the markets, as stocks for several of the big Chinese biotechs took a sharp dip this week.

The legislation prohibits federal contracts with the biotech companies listed above, among others, including any affiliate, or firm that uses the at-risk companies' equipment or services, although pre-existing contracts have been exempted from the bill.

WuXi AppTec is a pharmaceutical, biopharmaceutical, and medical device company, providing R&D and manufacturing services to the pharmaceutical and healthcare industry worldwide.

According to Reuters, the company generates more than half of its sales from its US business and operates facilities in Georgia, Pennsylvania, California, and at a soon-to-be-open campus in the state of Delaware.

Meantime, WuXi and BGI have both denied they pose any threats to the US, BGI claiming in a statement Thursday that the bill contains “misleading allegations and inaccurate assertions... against our company without due process."

Thursday, Chinese US embassy spokesperson Liu Pengyu called the allegations of genetic data theft “groundless” and “another example of the US making up excuses and using all means to suppress Chinese companies,” reported the South Morning Chinese Post.

“The US side should respect the basic facts, abandon ideological bias, stop abusing various excuses to suppress Chinese companies unreasonably, and provide fair, just, and non-discriminatory treatment to Chinese companies in their operations,” Liu said.

Republican Senator Rand Paul (R-KY), who was the sole “no” vote on the bill, said his fellow lawmakers were "taking advantage of anger towards China to do sort of parochial protectionist things for their particular state."

The Senator has also been vocal about his views on TikTok, last spring voting to block a Senate bill meant to fast-track a TikTok ban, citing free speech and unfair targeting of the Chinese-owned social media apps’ parent company ByteDance.

Speaking of the short-form video app, the US House Energy and Commerce Committee on Thursday happened to unanimously approve legislation giving the Chinese-owned ByteDance six months to divest from TikTok or be banned from operating its social media apps in the US. A fast-track vote on that bill will take place next week.