REPORT: Chinese Military Has Been Collecting Genetic Info From Globally Popular Prenatal Test

(Nicolas Asfouri/Pool/Getty Images)

Varun Hukeri General Assignment & Analysis Reporter
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A prenatal test developed by the Chinese genomics firm BGI Group in collaboration with China’s military is reportedly being used to collect genetic information from millions of women around the world, a Reuters investigation reported Wednesday.

BGI has reportedly worked with the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) to improve “population quality” and conducted genetic research on issues such as combat hearing loss and altitude sickness in Chinese soldiers, according to a Reuters review of scientific papers and company statements.

The prenatal tests, called “Non-Invasive Fetal TrisomY” (NIFTY), are also used to collect genetic information about pregnant women, including personal details such as height and weight, BGI computer code obtained by Reuters shows. The tests have reportedly been sold in at least 52 countries to detect fetal abnormalities and have been taken by more than 8 million women.

A Polish woman who took the test said she signed a BGI form agreeing to send a sample of her genetic data to Hong Kong, but said the form did not make clear where the data would be stored or that BGI’s research base is in mainland China. The woman, identified only as Emilia, told Reuters she would have chosen a different test if she had known the extent of BGI’s research. (RELATED: Science Journal Editor Says He Resigned After Publisher Said He Can’t Boycott China)

“I want to know what is happening with such sensitive data about me, such as my genome and that of my child,” she said. “This could be a very important matter when choosing a test. For me it would be.”

Genetic data collected from women both inside and outside China has reportedly been stored in a government-funded genetic database in Shenzhen, according to Reuters. A financial disclosure revealed both the Shenzhen city government and a Beijing state-owned investment firm took stakes in the BGI-run database in 2014.

One BGI study on Chinese women used a PLA supercomputer to map the prevalence of certain diseases and mental illnesses, and singled out Tibetan and Uyghur women to find links between their genetic characteristics and certain diseases, Reuters reported.

The genetics firm has published at least a dozen joint studies on prenatal and neonatal research with the PLA since 2010, the Reuters review found.

The reported collaboration between BGI and the PLA follows growing international scrutiny over China’s use of emerging technologies to fuel military modernization and commit human rights abuses in Xinjiang, where multiple accounts indicate Uyghur minorities have been subject to forced medical procedures and mass genetic data harvesting.

The U.S. National Counterintelligence and Security Center noted in a February report that China’s government considers genetic data “a strategic commodity to be collected and used for its economic and national security priorities.”

The U.S. National Security Commission on Artificial Intelligence similarly concluded in a March report that the U.S. should recognize China’s state-driven biotechnology research “as a national security threat.” Officials warned the technology could lead China to potentially create genetically enhanced soldiers and engineer pathogens that target populations or food supplies. (RELATED: Chinese President Xi Promises ‘Broken Heads And Bloodshed’ If Bullied By Foreign Powers)

The administration of former President Donald Trump previously imposed sanctions on two BGI subsidiaries in November 2020 for what it called China’s “abusive DNA collection and analysis schemes to repress its citizens,” The New York Times reported.