China's Military Helped Make Global Prenatal Tests. They Harvest Millions of Women's Data.

The prenatal tests are used worldwide. Women's genetic data is sent to a company that works with China's military.
Derya Ozdemir

BGI Group, a Chinese gene company selling prenatal tests around the world, reportedly developed its tests in collaboration with the country's military and might be using them to gather genetic data from millions of women for large-scale study on population characteristics, according to an investigation by news agency Reuters.

BGI provides tests, branded NIFTY for "Non-Invasive Fetal TrisomY", that women take about 10 weeks into pregnancy to collect DNA from the placenta and detect genetic conditions such as Down syndrome in the fetus. The tests are sold in at least 13 European Union nations, including Germany, Spain, and Denmark, as well as the United Kingdom Britain, Canada, Australia, Thailand, India, and Pakistan.

The investigation, based on a review of scientific papers and company statements, has found that BGI’s prenatal test acts as a source of genetic data for the company, and that it has cooperated with the Chinese military to enhance "population quality." There are also claims of the genetic data being used in studies to combat hearing loss and altitude sickness in soldiers.

BGI claims to retain and re-analyze prenatal test leftover blood samples and genetic data, and according to a BGI computer code seen by Reuters, the tests also gather genetic information about the mother, as well as personal details such as her nationality, height, and weight.

Reuters reports that the tests yield "increasingly potent information for research," with one BGI study reportedly re-analyzing NIFTY data and map the prevalence of viruses in Chinese women using a military supercomputer. The study also reportedly searched for signs of mental illness in them and singled out Tibetan and Uyghur minorities to see whether there were any correlations between their genes and their characteristics.

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Reuters also claimed that DNA data gathered from prenatal tests on women outside China has also been stored in China’s government-funded gene bank. The company stated that this claim is false and that DNA collected from prenatal tests on women outside of China is stored in BGI's laboratory in Hong Kong and is destroyed after five years, as required by the European Union's General Data Protection Regulation, which is widely regarded as the world's toughest privacy and security law, according to Global Times.

Reuters found no evidence BGI violated privacy agreements or regulations. “At no stage throughout the testing or research process does BGI have access to any identifiable personal data,” the company said. However, according to the test’s privacy policy, data collected can be shared when it is “directly relevant to national security or national defense security” in China.

Back in March, U.S. government experts had warned that the genetic data that BGI is gathering and analyzing with AI could provide China a way to economic and military superiority, pushing it to the top of the global medicines market. The experts also said it could potentially lead to genetically also enhanced soldiers or engineered pathogens that could be used to target the U.S. population or food supply.

BGI called the Reuters report 'factually incorrect'

Following the Reuters report, the BGI issued a statement in its defense Thursday noon, claiming 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 told the Global Times that the Reuters' report was "factually incorrect." The company claimed its tests were not developed in collaboration with China's military and that it complies with all national and international data privacy regulations.

"Wherever BGI undertakes research, we strictly comply with local laws, guidelines, and protocols, while adhering to internationally recognized ethical standards. The data privacy standards BGI applies to its research meet strict national and international requirements, including the GDPR in EU," BGI said.

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