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China's BGI Group is using its prenatal test to harvest gene data, claims report

12 July 2021
Appeared in BioNews 1103

Genetic data from millions of prenatal blood samples are being used for population research by China, according to Reuters.

The prenatal test, made by Chinese company BGI Group and branded as NIFTY, is a blood test that can detect gene abnormalities in fetuses. There are concerns globally that these genetic data are being shared with the Chinese authorities to aid China's own interests.

BGI Group refuted the claims made by Reuters. In a statement, it said: 'Assertions that BGI is motivated by anything other than the advancement of health outcomes are both deeply disappointing and factually incorrect.'

NIFTY samples are stored for up to five years, meaning genetic data from both women and fetuses are available for secondary research. Metrics such as weight, height, location and medical history are also collected. BGI Group has conducted population research investigating the link between genetics and certain population traits, such as susceptibility to infection – in some cases, singling out those from Uighur and Tibetan minority groups.

In its report, Reuters stated that it had reviewed over 100 publicly available documents to investigate links of data sharing by BGI Group with the Chinese military and authorities. BGI Group has published studies with multiple collaborators, including with Chinese military hospitals that it does not dispute – one example being a 2018 study published in the journal Cell (see BioNews 970).

However, Reuters asserted that some documents talked of 'improving population quality', and showed NIFTY genetic data being used to combat altitude sickness and hearing loss in Chinese soldiers. BGI Group maintains that its technology was developed independently without military involvement.  

The NIFTY test is currently sold in 52 countries, including the UK, and has been performed on over eight million pregnant women. Patients are required to sign a consent form, stating that their genetic data can be shared when 'directly relevant to national security or national defence security'. In 2019, a Chinese regulation specifically declared genetic data as a potential matter of national security. Despite this, in its statement BGI Group said:

'BGI has never been asked to provide, nor has it provided data from its NIFTY test to Chinese authorities for national security or national defence security purposes.'

The US National Counterintelligence and Security Centre (NCSC) has previously raised concerns that China may be using genetic data to gain economic or military advantage over other countries. Commenting on the latest report, the NCSC told Reuters that clinical tests like NIFTY 'serve an important medical function, but they can also provide another mechanism for the People's Republic of China and Chinese biotech companies to collect genetic and genomic data from around the globe.'

BGI Group stressed that it adheres to the strictest international data protection laws, including GDPR. Responding to the report, China's Ministry of Foreign Affairs said the claims reflected 'groundless accusations and smears' of US agencies.

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