Millions of gene data harvested across world from women's prenatal tests linked to Chinese military

WION Web Team
Beijing, China Published: Jul 08, 2021, 10:57 AM(IST)

China’s gene giant harvests data from millions of women Photograph:( Reuters )

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Eerily, the tests used in over 50 countries also capture genetic information about the mother, as well as personal details such as her country, height, and weight, but not her name. More disturbing is how the data is being used to single out Tibetan and Uyghur minorities.

China's BGI group is using genetic data collected through its prenatal tests from millions of women for sweeping research on the traits of populations, according to a report by news agency Reuters.

Eerily, the tests used in over 50 countries also capture genetic information about the mother, as well as personal details such as her country, height, and weight, but not her name. More disturbing in the report is how the data is being used to single out Tibetan and Uyghur minorities, to find links between their genes and their characteristics.

BGI Group sells prenatal tests around the world. The tests, developed in collaboration with the Chinese military, have been taken by more than 8 million women.

Based on review of scientific papers and company statements, Reuters found that it is using the genomic data to improve “population quality” and on genetic research to combat hearing loss and altitude sickness in soldiers.

Since 2010, the company has published at least a dozen joint studies on the tests with the People’s Liberation Army (PLA), trialling and improving the tests or analysing the data they provided.

Even as science pinpoints new links between genes and human traits, access to the biggest, most diverse set of human genomes is a strategic edge.

BGI group claims it stores and re-analyses left-over blood samples and genetic data from the prenatal tests, sold in at least 52 countries to detect abnormalities such as Down syndrome in the fetus.

However, in a groundbreaking report, Reuters has revealed that the group's prenatal tests, branded NIFTY for “Non-Invasive Fetal TrisomY” also capture genetic information about the mother, as well as personal details such as her country, height, and weight, but not her name.

The report states that the BGI group uses military supercomputers to re-analyse NIFTY data to single out Tibetan and Uyghur minorities to find links between their genes and their characteristics.

In its defence, the BGI issued a statement saying it ''has never been asked to provide, nor provided, data from its NIFTY tests to Chinese authorities for national security or national defense security purposes.''

BGI is one of about half a dozen major providers of the tests which women take about 10 weeks into a pregnancy to capture DNA from the placenta in the woman’s bloodstream.

Its tests are marketed in at least 13 European Union countries, including Germany, Spain and Denmark, as well as in Britain, Canada, Australia, Thailand, India and Pakistan.

Previously, advisors of the US government had warned in March that the vast bank of genomic data that the company is amassing and analysing with artificial intelligence could give China a path to economic and military advantage. 

The technology could propel China to dominate global pharmaceuticals, and also potentially lead to genetically enhanced soldiers, or engineered pathogens to target the US population or food supply, the advisors said.

In 2019, Beijing had mentioned in a regulation that genetic data can be a national security matter, and since 2015 it has restricted foreign researchers from accessing gene data on Chinese people.

(With inputs from agencies)

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