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China gene firm providing worldwide COVID tests worked with Chinese military

China gene firm providing worldwide COVID tests worked with Chinese military
January 31, 2021

SYDNEY (Reuters) – BGI Group, the world’s largest genomics company, has worked with China’s military on research that ranges from mass testing for respiratory pathogens to brain science, a Reuters review of research, patent filings and other documents has found.

The review, of more than 40 publicly available documents and research papers in Chinese and English, shows BGI’s links to the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) include research with China’s top military supercomputing experts. The extent of those links has not previously been reported.

BGI has sold millions of COVID-19 test kits outside China since the outbreak of the new coronavirus pandemic, including to Europe, Australia and the United States. Shares of BGI Genomics Co, the company’s subsidiary listed on the Shenzhen stock exchange, have doubled in price over the past 12 months, giving it a market value of about $9 billion.

But top US security officials have warned American labs against using Chinese tests because of concern China was seeking to gather foreign genetic data for its own research. BGI has denied that.

The documents reviewed by Reuters neither contradict nor support that US suspicion. Still, the material shows that the links between the Chinese military and BGI run deeper than previously understood, illustrating how China has moved to integrate private technology companies into military-related research under President Xi Jinping.

The US government has recently been warned by an expert panel that adversary countries and non-state actors might find and target genetic weaknesses in the US population and a competitor such as China could use genetics to augment the strength of its own military personnel.

BGI has worked on PLA projects seeking to make members of the ethnic Han Chinese majority less susceptible to altitude sickness, Reuters found, genetic research that would benefit soldiers in some border areas.

Elsa Kania, an adjunct senior fellow at the Center for a New American Security think tank, who has provided testimony to US Congressional committees, told Reuters that China’s military has pushed research on brain science, gene editing and the creation of artificial genomes that could have an application in future bioweapons. She added that such weapons are not currently technically feasible.

BGI’s pattern of collaboration with the Chinese military was a “reasonable concern to raise” for US officials, said Kania.