Overwatch analysts are diving into the possible dangers of targeted genetic data collection. Entire nations can be disarmed with DNA surveillance or the creation of modern bioweapons, including fatal viruses that target specific genes. When millions of Americans utilized the mail-in DNA services of genealogy companies to learn about their ancestors, they knowingly gave their genetic data away. Is it possible that we are overlooking the risks of sharing our DNA with consumer-based genetic testing companies, especially as China aims to become the world’s bio-data leader?
In 2016, China announced a $9 billion project to collect and sequence genetic data, which is reportedly used for “a method designed to give individualized treatments based on genetic makeup, environmental, and lifestyle factors of individual patients.” This investment highlights that the Chinese government is interested in the health ramifications of ethnic gene isolations. The opposite of individualized treatments to improve health is individualized bioweapons that deteriorate health. “An adversary could develop a bioweapon that induces auto-immune diseases or avoids immune detection only in people with specific genetic variants,” according to Geneinfosec, a genetic information security firm.
For this brief, Overwatch analyzed China’s various attempts to obtain American DNA, as well as China’s history of targeting select groups of individuals to gather genetic data, specifically the Uyghurs. To acquire American genetic data, our research uncovered evidence that reveals China focuses on partnerships and investments with U.S. Medical Research Universities, biotech corporations, mail-order genetic testing companies, and Covid-19 testing facilities to retrieve American genetic data.
Theory of Biological Dominance
China’s People’s Liberation Army (PLA) has refocused its strategy to embrace biology and genetic research development as of 2019. This is not surprising, given that the philosophy of biological warfare dominance was promoted through a series of Chinese literary works, including War for Biological Dominance, published in 2010 by China’s Third Military Medical University. The author’s claim that biotechnology will become central to national defense: from biomaterials to brain control weapons. According to the Washington Times, a similar notion was put into doctrine in the 2017 edition of the PLA National Defense University textbook, which discussed the potential for bioweapons with the capability of “specific ethnic genetic attacks.” This is significant because it reveals that the PLA has a strategic interest in the biological components of ethnic DNA for military and security purposes.
China’s History of Targeted Genetic Data Collection
China has a history of utilizing genetic data to target select groups of individuals. From 2016 to 2017, the Beijing Genomic Institution (BGI), a Chinese state-sponsored lab, was involved in the targeted collection of DNA samples and biometric data from the country’s Uyghur population under the false premise of a free health check. According to the New York Times, those who did not willingly give their genetic data were contacted by local authorities and were told a healthcare check was required. For decades, China has persecuted the Uyghur population, a predominantly Muslim minority community. In the past, the government has arrested hundreds of thousands of Uyghurs and placed them in detention camps where DNA collection is also conducted. Other targeted DNA collection efforts include:
In 2016, China required DNA samples from all Uyghurs needing travel documents.
In 2019, reports of the Chinese government developing technology to predict physical appearances based on the DNA collected from Uyghurs in Xinjiang province.
Beijing Genomic Institution office building in Shenzhen, China. Photo Credit: CGTN
American Genetic Data Collection
In 2019, The Pentagon advised military personnel not to take DNA tests by mail. Admiral John Richardson, the then Chief of Naval Operations, warned of scientific advances in DNA collection, which make biological weapons more tailorable. Similarly, the Office of the Director of National Intelligence (ODNI) warned that China prioritized collecting American healthcare data. This includes genomic data potentially used for nefarious purposes such as targeting military personnel, as China “already has a significant record of exploiting DNA for social control and surveillance of their Uyghur population.”
However, Chinese biotech companies, particularly WuXi healthcare and BGI, have found their way around the U.S. government warnings and successfully increased their involvement with American biotech institutions to access American DNA.
In 2011, BGI announced a partnership with the University of California, Davis, to establish a BGI Genetic Sequencing facility for immediate use. During this time, BGI also partnered with the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia to conduct a large-scale human genome sequencing and collection of bioinformatics.
In 2015, WuXi Healthcare invested in 23andMe. Direct-to-consumer genetic tests such as 23andMe allow consumers to identify genealogies and potential familial diseases.
In 2021, BGI partnered with Advaite, a Pennsylvania-based biotech company, to conduct the diagnostics of the Rapid Covid-19 test.
Also, in 2021, claims were made that BGI Genomics partnered with the Chinese military to harvest DNA samples from millions of women worldwide from prenatal testing kits. It is unclear how many American women participated or how much American DNA was gathered from this collection.
These partnerships show the clear roadmap that China continues to use to obtain American genetic data.
The global pandemic in 2020 showed China and the rest of the globe the devastation that a health crisis may cause. Using genetic data to target nations, communities, and ethnic groups or create a bioweapon undetectable by the naked eye poses a significant threat to society. Any government that positions itself to become a pioneer in the field of biodata gives itself the potential to gain an immediate competitive advantage.
We assess that, if left unchecked, China will continue to pursue avenues to develop relationships with commercial corporations and research institutions in the U.S. to obtain health and DNA data. Consequently, if the U.S. Government ignore that corporations and medical institutes are sharing our DNA with China, future generations of Americans will be at a greater risk of genetic targeting, DNA surveillance, undetectable health problems, and genocide, just as the Uyghurs in China have. It is unclear whether American DNA companies have sold data to China directly. However, China’s military and government are increasingly interested in DNA collecting and sequencing through various means.