Company developed prenatal tests with Chinese military to collect data on millions of women: report


A Chinese company is collecting and storing the genetic data of millions of women and their unborn children through its prenatal tests, according to a report from Reuters published on Wednesday.

Through a review of more than 100 scientific papers and company statements, Reuters found that the BGI Group, a Chinese genome sequencing company, is using its prenatal tests — some of the most popular in the world — as a source of genetic data.

The test — sold as NIFTY for “Non-Invasive Fetal TrisomY” — is used to look for genetic abnormalities such as Down syndrome. BGI computer code seen by Reuters reportedly shows that the tests captures the genetic data, height, weight and country of the expectant mothers, though not their names.

Eight million women have taken BGI’s prenatal tests globally, Reuters reports.

BGI told Reuters that it only stores the location data of women in mainland China. The company confirmed, however, that DNA data from women outside of China is being stored on databases funded by the Chinese government, one of the largest databases of its kind in the world.

BGI reportedly said it “has never been asked to provide — nor provided — data from its NIFTY tests to Chinese authorities for national security or national defence security purposes.”

Reuters reports that BGI is not the only company that reuses data from prenatal tests for research but that it stands alone in the scale of its research and in its links to the Chinese government. 

A study conducted by BGI using a military supercomputer was reportedly used to single out Tibetan and Uyghur minorities and look for links between their genes and their characteristics.

There is reportedly no evidence that BGI has violated patient privacy agreements, though Reuters notes that the NIFTY privacy policy states that data can be shared if it is “directly relevant to national security or national defence security.”

The U.S. National Counterintelligence and Security Center (NCSC) told Reuters that it has “serious concerns” over how genetic data is being “collected, transmitted, stored and used” by Chinese entities such as BGI.

The NCSC issued a warning in February about the China’s government stepped up efforts to obtain U.S. health data during the pandemic, pointing to COVID-19 testing kits offered by BGI as example of possible threats.

“The PRC [People’s Republic of China] understands the collection and analysis of large genomic data sets from diverse populations helps foster new medical discoveries and cures that can have substantial commercial value and advance its Artificial Intelligence and precision medicine industries,” the NCSC wrote. “China’s access to U.S. healthcare and genomic data poses serious privacy and national security risks to the U.S.”

A report from The Associated Press last year revealed that federal government officials had warned Nevada against using some 250,000 donated COVID-19 tests made by BGI over concerns about patient privacy and involvement from the Chinese government. BGI claimed that the donation had been made without its knowledge by the Emirati company Group 42, with whom it developed the test.

Tags BGI Group China COVID-19 testing DNA sequencing Genetic testing Genetics Prenatal testing Reuters Reuters

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