Posted on July 8, 2021

China’s Gene Giant Harvests Data From Millions of Women

Kirsty Needham and Clare Baldwin, Reuters, July 7, 2021

A Chinese gene company selling prenatal tests around the world developed them in collaboration with the country’s military and is using them to collect genetic data from millions of women for sweeping research on the traits of populations, a Reuters review of scientific papers and company statements found.

U.S. government advisors warned in March that a vast bank of genomic data that the company, BGI Group, is amassing and analysing with artificial intelligence could give China a path to economic and military advantage. As science pinpoints new links between genes and human traits, access to the biggest, most diverse set of human genomes is a strategic edge. The technology could propel China to dominate global pharmaceuticals, and also potentially lead to genetically enhanced soldiers, or engineered pathogens to target the U.S. population or food supply, the advisors said.

Reuters has found that BGI’s prenatal test, one of the most popular in the world, is a source of genetic data for the company, which has worked with the Chinese military to improve “population quality” and on genetic research to combat hearing loss and altitude sickness in soldiers.

BGI says 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’s syndrome in the foetus. The 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, BGI computer code viewed by Reuters shows.

So far, more than 8 million women have taken BGI’s prenatal tests globally. BGI has not said how many of the women took the test abroad, and said it only stores location data on women in mainland China.

The tests are a private procedure for the women who take them, a component in their routine prenatal care. But the studies show that they yield increasingly potent information for research.

One BGI study, for instance, used a military supercomputer to re-analyse NIFTY data and map the prevalence of viruses in Chinese women, look for indicators of mental illness in them, and single out Tibetan and Uyghur minorities to find links between their genes and their characteristics.

The scale of BGI’s accumulation of prenatal data, and its collaboration with the military in prenatal and neonatal research, have not been previously reported. The company has published at least a dozen joint studies on the tests with the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) since 2010, trialling and improving the tests or analysing the data they provided, the Reuters review found.

DNA data collected from prenatal tests on women outside China has also been stored in China’s government-funded gene database, one of the world’s largest, the company confirmed. BGI, in which the Shenzhen city government and Beijing’s largest state investment vehicle took stakes here in 2014, runs that gene bank.

Reuters found no evidence BGI violated patient privacy agreements or regulations. However, the privacy policy on the NIFTY test’s website says data collected can be shared when it is “directly relevant to national security or national defence security” in China.

Beijing made clear in a 2019 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. In contrast, the United States and Britain give foreign researchers access to genetic data, as part of open science policies.


Other companies selling such prenatal tests also re-use data for research. But none operate on the scale of BGI, scientists and ethicists say, or have BGI’s links to a government or its track record  with a national military.

News BGI developed the prenatal tests with the PLA comes as international scrutiny is increasing over China’s use of civilian technology for military modernisation. NATO has warned China’s assertive behaviour is a systemic challenge, and Beijing has drawn sanctions for alleged human rights violations in Xinjiang and stepped up a national security crackdown in Hong Kong.

The findings offer new insight into how BGI is using vast computing power to unlock genomic secrets. Previously, Reuters revealed how the company rapidly expanded its gene-sequencing labs globally and gained a role in other nations’ health systems, and how it worked with China’s military on research ranging from mass testing for respiratory pathogens to brain science.

The Reuters examination also sheds new light on concerns expressed by a U.S. expert panel, the U.S. National Security Commission on Artificial Intelligence (NSCAI), led by former Google chief executive Eric Schmidt. The panel said in March that the United States should recognise China’s strides towards global leadership in biotechnology and AI as a new kind of national security threat, and boost funding for its own research to counter China’s state-driven effort.


BGI is one of about half a dozen major providers of the tests, more generally known as non-invasive prenatal tests (NIPT), 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. They are not sold in the United States.

However, the company is a pivotal player in a genomics race between China and the United States. In its latest annual report, it said it “has been working hard to promote Chinese technology, Chinese experience and Chinese standards to ‘go global.’”


The data offer insight into foreign populations as well as China’s own. Computer instructions that BGI uses to process the NIFTY data show it collects a wide range of information about customers besides their genetic code. This includes the women’s country, medical history and the sex of the foetus, according to the instructions, reviewed by Reuters on a programmers’ forum online.


The women, who signed consent forms stating that their genetic data would be stored and used for research, said they did not realise their genetic information could end up in China. For example, one of them, a 32-year-old office administrator in Poland, signed a BGI form agreeing to have her sample sent to Hong Kong and her genetic data retained, but the form did not say where it would be held, or make clear that BGI’s headquarters and research base are in Shenzhen.


The U.S. National Counterintelligence and Security Center (NCSC) told Reuters in response to this report that it had “serious concerns” over how genetic data is “collected, transmitted, stored and used” by China’s government and companies.

The NCSC, which issues public warnings on intelligence threats to the United States, has said here China’s collection of healthcare data from America poses serious risks, not only to privacy, but also to U.S. economic and national security.


Shenzhen-based BGI shot to global prominence last year after selling or donating millions of COVID-19 test kits and gene-sequencing labs outside China. U.S. security agencies warned this was part of an effort to collect large amounts of foreign genetic material. BGI said this year it has built 80 COVID-19 labs in 30 countries, which it plans to repurpose for reproductive health screening.

It says its COVID-19 tests do not collect patient DNA.

But its prenatal tests do.


BGI patented its tests in 2011 and began marketing them abroad in 2013. Within three years, more than 2,000 healthcare providers globally were selling them, according to BGI marketing materials. In 2019, the last full year before the COVID-19 pandemic, BGI reported that 42% of its sales of 2.8 billion yuan ($433.07 million) came from its reproductive health division. Prenatal tests are the major contributor.


For more than a decade, scientists worldwide have searched for a cost-effective way to study the genetic profiles of a whole population of people. A handful of efforts reached tens of thousands of participants, but anything larger stalled on cost and logistics, BGI researchers wrote in a 2018 scientific paper published here in Cell.

Left-over samples and test data from prenatal tests meant BGI could run studies on an unprecedented scale.

In the Cell paper, BGI researchers said they had performed the largest study of Chinese population genetics ever – which they undertook with 141,000 re-used prenatal tests. The tests, they said, “provide an untapped resource” to understand how people’s genes relate to their characteristics, and to their susceptibility to viruses.

This, they said, could offer “considerable mapping power.”

The researchers were able to see genes associated with bipolar  disease, schizophrenia, immune response and resistance to malaria. They were able to link genes to height and percentage of body fat as well as to a diet high in animal fat.

And they were able to track viruses including hepatitis B – which they found to be relatively common among the Chinese population – and two types of herpes virus, which they said were more prevalent among Europeans. “We … reveal a different viral sequencing distribution spectrum compared to Europeans,” the researchers wrote.

A biology professor at the University of California, Berkeley, Rasmus Nielsen, advised BGI researchers on how to extract information from the prenatal test data for the study.

“It’s amazing that this is even possible,” he told a Berkeley newsletter in 2018. “You can take these massive samples and do association-mapping to see what the genetic variants are that explain human traits.”

The researchers were also able to trace genetic distinctions between the country’s dominant Han Chinese ethnic group and minorities including Uyghurs and Tibetans, and look at population movements and intermarriage caused by Chinese government policy since 1949. This data was later released to other Chinese researchers studying how “significantly different” genetic variations in Uyghurs affected their response to drugs, a 2019 scientific paper shows.

China’s collection and analysis of the DNA of its Uyghur Muslim population – including systematic collections of samples from residents in Xinjiang – has drawn sharp criticism. The United States sanctioned two BGI subsidiaries last year for what it called China’s “abusive DNA collection and analysis schemes to repress its citizens.” {snip}