China spirals past US in genome research


An abstract illustration of human DNA molecules. PHOTO/IStock/Getty Images

DNA mapping and banking is a competitive biomedical field where issues of rights and progress are intricately intertwined

The US government’s National Human Genome Research Institute (NHGRI) is studying if every American baby should undergo extensive DNA sequencing and analysis at birth, while China and other countries are already more advanced toward that goal despite rights concerns.

DNA, the double helix of deoxyribonucleic acid, can reveal a person’s physical and psychiatric health, identity, relatives and other details. But databases of people’s DNA could also enable governments, police, hackers, corporations, forgers and others to abuse the information.

“I do know that if you look in the last 15 years, the investment in genomics, in particular, have been more substantial in countries like China, South Korea, Singapore, and even places like Brazil,” NHGRI director Eric Green said in an interview.

“Support for biomedical research in the United States has not really kept up with inflation, and other countries have taken our playbook and run with it more aggressively – by ‘playbook’ I mean genomic tools and technologies… We’re hoping to see similar increases in the future.”

Sequencing reveals the order of the four chemical “bases” which create a DNA molecule. That information can display what lines of DNA turn genes on or off, and show mutations which may result in disease – plus other information.

The world’s largest genetic research center is in Shenzhen. China’s databases hold an estimated 40 million people’s DNA samples. They include DNA from ethnic Uighurs in rebellious Xinjiang province, where 10 million Uighurs and other predominantly Muslim minorities live.

Sequencing or identifying details of DNA, rights groups say, could be used to create bioweapons to kill specific ethnic groups or individuals.

“The Chinese government’s mandatory data-banking of the entire [Xinjiang] population’s biodata, including DNA, has understandably raised alarm bells among rights advocates, given that China lacks the kinds of legal safeguards that other countries implement to manage their DNA databases,” said US Senator Marco Rubio, chairman of the Congressional-Executive Commission on China.

Rubio’s February 8 statement was in his letter to Waltham, Massachusetts-based Thermo Fisher Scientific’s CEO Marc Casper who is vice chair of the US-China Business Council.

Casper’s DNA sequencers are reportedly in operation in Xinjiang “where grave human rights violations are being perpetrated by the Chinese government” in its DNA collection, Senator Rubio wrote.

“Can you provide details of your relationship with the Xinjiang Public Security Bureau and the Chinese Ministry of Public Security, and relevant discussions you may have had regarding the intended use of Thermo Fisher Scientific’s equipment?” Rubio asked.

“Chinese authorities in Xinjiang are collecting DNA samples, fingerprints, iris scans, and blood types of all residents in the region between the age of 12 and 65,” US-based Human Rights Watch (HRW) said in a report in December.

“Thermo Fisher Scientific has supplied the Xinjiang police with some of these DNA sequencers,” HRW said.

HRW asked Thermo Fisher Scientific for an explanation in 2017 and received a reply which stated: “Given the global nature of our operations, it is not possible for us to monitor the use or application of all products we manufactured.”

Beijing says DNA data improves health services and saves lives from undiagnosed diseases. The “blood cards for DNA collection” are linked to each individual’s identity number, according to the Chinese government’s Office of Population Service and Management and Real Name Registration Work Leadership Committee.

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