U.S. officials say the Chinese government is trying to collect Americans’ DNA, and they believe a recent offer from a Chinese company for assistance in COVID-19 testing was suspicious. Jon Wertheim reports.
For all the polarization that grips Washington, here’s a source of rare consensus: the emerging threat of China’s push to acquire our health care data, including the DNA of American citizens. U.S. officials tell us the communist regime’s aggressive collection of our most personal information presents a danger both to national security and our economy. As alarm bells ring across agencies, parties, and presidential administrations, different branches of government have taken action over the past year to stem the tide of our medical data flowing to China. The quest to control our biodata – and, in turn, control health care’s future – has become the new space race, with more than national pride in the balance. Our investigation begins with an unsolicited and surprising proposal that came from overseas at the onset of the COVID crisis.
Early last March, the state of Washington was the site of the first major coronavirus outbreak in the U.S. As COVID rates and the need for tests were spiking, BGI Group, the world’s largest biotech firm – a global giant based in China – approached the state of Washington with an enticing offer.
In a strikingly personal letter to the governor, BGI proposed to build and help run state-of-the-art COVID testing labs. BGI would quote “provide technical expertise,” provide “high throughput sequencers” and even “make additional donations.”
It seemed like an offer the state couldn’t refuse, especially given the desperate need. But officials were suspicious about BGI and its connections to the Chinese government.
Bill Evanina: They are the ultimate company that shows connectivity to both the communist state as well as the military apparatus.
Bill Evanina recently stepped down as the top counterintelligence official in the U.S., a veteran of both the FBI and CIA. He was so concerned by BGI’s COVID testing proposals, and who would ultimately get the data, that he authorized a rare public warning:
“Foreign powers can collect, store and exploit biometric information from covid tests.”
Bill Evanina: 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?
Jon Wertheim: Tens of millions Americans getting COVID tests this year, you don’t think a lot of them are thinking, “Boy, where is this data going, what third party’s involved in this?”
Bill Evanina: I would proffer no one’s thinking that. But this shows the nefarious mindset of the Communist Party of China, to take advantage of a worldwide crisis like COVID.
Evanina suspects these lab offers are modern-day Trojan horses. BGI comes to the U.S. bearing gifts, but harboring other motives. It’s unclear whether BGI, or any COVID tester, would get DNA from nasal swabs, he says, but the labs are a way to establish a foothold, to bring their equipment here, start mining your data, and set up shop in your neighborhood.
Edward You: You have to take a step back and ask yourself who has access to that data.