As countries scramble to test for the novel coronavirus, a Chinese company has become a go-to name around the world.
BGI Group, described in one 2015 study as “Goliath” in the fast-growing field of genomics research, is using an opening created by the pandemic to expand its footprint globally.
In the past six months, it says it has sold 35 million rapid COVID-19 testing kits to 180 countries and built 58 labs in 18 countries. Some of the equipment has been donated by BGI’s philanthropic arm, promoted by China’s embassies in an extension of China’s virus diplomacy.
But as well as test kits, the company is distributing gene-sequencing technology that US security officials say could threaten national security. This is a sensitive area globally. Sequencers are used to analyse genetic material, and can unlock powerful personal information.
In science journals and online, BGI is calling on international health researchers to send in virus data generated on its equipment, as well as patient samples that have tested positive for COVID-19, to be shared publicly via China’s government-funded National GeneBank.
As BGI’s foothold in the gene-sequencing industry grows, a senior US administration official told Reuters on condition of anonymity, so does the risk China could harvest genetic information from populations around the world.
Underpinning BGI’s global expansion are the Shenzhen-based company’s links to the Chinese government, which include its role as operator of China’s national genetic database and its research in government-affiliated key laboratories.
BGI, which says in stock market filings it aims to help the ruling Communist Party achieve its goal to “seize the commanding heights of international biotechnology competition,” is coming under increasing scrutiny in an escalating Cold War between Washington and Beijing, Reuters found.
Reuters found no evidence that BGI is violating patient privacy protections where these apply. Responding to questions from the news agency, BGI said it is not owned by the Chinese government.
“Under the current political climate, the fear raised about the use of BGI’s technology is unfounded and misleading,” BGI said in a statement to Reuters. “BGI’s mission is, and has always been, using genomics to benefit people’s health and wellbeing.”
China’s foreign ministry said in a statement the country has been open, transparent and responsible in “sharing information and experience with the international community, providing supplies to relevant countries” including COVID-19 test kits and protective equipment, and helping countries improve epidemic control.
The extent of BGI’s endeavours to dominate an industry with geostrategic value, as well as of its efforts to gather genetic data from around the world, was pieced together by Reuters from public documents and dozens of interviews with scientists, researchers and health officials.
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