China is amassing large quantities of private American health care data, including sensitive genetic information, as the coronavirus pandemic forces an unprecedented and often unregulated amount of cooperation between the U.S. government and Communist-tied medical companies.
China has "made collecting health care-related data a national priority," according to a new report submitted to Congress by the U.S.-China Economic and Security Review Commission, which is tasked with analyzing threats posed by the Communist regime. Beijing's interest in this information extends far beyond the commercial realm. Health care data can help China build complex portfolios on American citizens, inflating the risk they could be targeted, according to the U.S. intelligence community. The U.S. government has repeatedly warned that Beijing could exploit this information but still continues to work with Chinese companies deemed a security threat.
The coronavirus pandemic has exacerbated espionage concerns, according to the report. Chinese genetic sequencing companies and other medical firms have made major inroads in America as the country struggles to provide timely coronavirus testing and analysis to those at risk of getting the virus. China has supplied cheap COVID testing kits, giving it access to Americans' genetic data, which it can use to build profiles on U.S. citizens. This has heightened worries about how China will use that critical information.
Genetic information "can be used from a counterintelligence perspective to either coerce you or convince you to help the Chinese," John Demers, a top national security official in the Department of Justice, warned in an October interview.
The coronavirus pandemic has forced the United States to work closer with Chinese medical companies, which provide cheap supplies due to government subsidies. While the Trump administration is angling to crack down on China and its spy apparatus during its final weeks in office, the incoming Biden administration has promised to reset ties with Beijing—potentially paving the way for increased cooperation with Chinese companies.
One of the most closely scrutinized Chinese genetic sequencing companies is the BGI Group, which has sent coronavirus testing kits around the world. BGI has increased its footprint in the United States in recent years by acquiring smaller American companies. This has given the Communist-tied company "access to proprietary sequencing technology in the United States," according to the new report.
"In the wake of the COVID-19 outbreak, the United States has further opened up its market to Chinese medical devices that collect U.S. health care data," the report noted. In March, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration signed off on emergency use authorizations for BGI's American subsidiary to test for coronavirus. This marked the first time in history the United States permitted Chinese-manufactured devices to be used in the country. As of August, BGI has sold more than 35 million coronavirus tests to 180 countries, including the United States, according to the report.
BGI "labs are providing Chinese researchers with heterogeneous genetic data to serve Chinese ambitions to dominate the biotech market," the report said.
BGI, which is a private company, maintains it is not controlled or funded by the Communist government and keeps a close guard on patient data. Its subsidiaries, however, have been sanctioned by the U.S. government for alleged human rights abuses related to the ethnic minority Uighur community.
Earlier this year, U.S. security officials warned Nevada against using BGI-made coronavirus kits, highlighting the difficulty this country has had balancing concerns about Communist China with its need to effectively combat the coronavirus pandemic. U.S. officials at the time cited "concerns about patient privacy … and Chinese government involvement," according to an Associated Press report. The state ultimately discarded 250,000 coronavirus tests as a result of the warning.
China experts view Beijing's moves as dangerous for patient privacy.
"China's BGI Group may now have the largest database on Americans after acquiring Complete Genomics in 2013," Gordon Chang, a veteran China analyst, warned last month. "Beijing is determined to dominate the biotech industry. Beijing may also be developing biological weapons designed to target certain ethnic groups."