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Euroviews. When it comes to genomics, de-risking with China is not enough

A medical professional removes the cryostorage sheath from a container for an embryo at a laboratory in Shenzhen, October 2018
A medical professional removes the cryostorage sheath from a container for an embryo at a laboratory in Shenzhen, October 2018 Copyright AP Photo/Euronews
Copyright AP Photo/Euronews
By Miriam Lexmann, Juozas Olekas, Bart Groothuis, Reinhard Bütikofer, Anna Fotyga, MEPs
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The opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not represent in any way the editorial position of Euronews.

This is not about stoking the flames of techno-protectionism, but about safeguarding the fundamental rights to privacy, security, and ethical governance in the face of real and present dangers, five MEPs write.

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In the landscape of EU-China relations, European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen's doctrine of "de-risking, not decoupling" has become a central tenet.

This approach underscores the European Union's lack of coherent strategy towards China — attempts to balance between engagement and safeguarding its interests while failing to address more comprehensively the scale of threats and challenges posed by the totalitarian regime.

Furthermore, while de-risking itself seeks to foster a pragmatic stance on economic and diplomatic fronts, it's imperative to recognise certain sectors necessitate more definitive action.

The field of genomics, with its profound implications for privacy, security, and ethical standards, exemplifies where decoupling is overdue.

How much do you know about genetic data harvesting?

The involvement of Chinese state-linked entities in the global genomics arena, particularly the gene giant BGI Group, has raised significant concerns. Revelations about genetic data harvesting have highlighted the intricate web of privacy, ethical, and security risks associated with the collection and analysis of DNA by entities tied to the Chinese government. 

Chinese companies like BGI are required to share any data with Beijing’s authorities when requested under its National Intelligence Law. There is no oversight or mechanism for companies to fight such a request.

Such an obligation also applies to Mindray, a Shenzhen-based manufacturer of medical equipment and patient monitoring that already services more than 660 European hospitals and 60% of all medical institutions. Much like BGI, it harvests sensitive healthcare and biological data of European citizens. 

Well-documented warnings from intelligence and security experts [have detailed] how genetic data, under the guise of research and development, could be utilised for purposes which starkly contrast with the EU’s values and security interests.
A traveler pushes his luggage beneath large Chinese flags on hanging from the ceiling in Shenzhen Bao'an International Airport in Shenzhen, October 2018
A traveler pushes his luggage beneath large Chinese flags on hanging from the ceiling in Shenzhen Bao'an International Airport in Shenzhen, October 2018AP Photo/Mark Schiefelbein

Such apprehensions are grounded in well-documented warnings from intelligence and security experts detailing how genetic data, under the guise of research and development, could be utilised for purposes which starkly contrast with the EU’s values and security interests.

Chinese authorities’ specific interest in genomic profiling of ethnic groups to advance state surveillance goals and policy against vulnerable populations was already revealed.

Additionally, there are well-founded concerns about whether China’s “genomic policy fulfil the basic ethical requirements for non-maleficence, beneficence, justice and veracity”. We’re falling behind.

Recent moves by the United States, including President Biden's initiative to tighten controls on US data flows to China and Russia and the bipartisan BIOSECURE Act that would ban Chinese genomics companies from federal contracts, exemplify a growing recognition of the risks associated with unfettered access to sensitive data. 

Genetic data is 'the new gold'

Europe has experienced consequences of overdependence on external entities, especially in areas critical to national security and public welfare. Just as the EU seeks alternatives to Russian energy to ensure security and autonomy, a similar recalibration is needed in the realm of genomics.

The potential misuse of genetic data by adversarial states poses a stark reminder of the risks associated with reliance on high-risk vendors and expertise in areas of strategic importance.

In this context, the EU must reassess its stance on de-risking, phase out high-risk vendors from its critical infrastructure, including the health and genomics sector, and consider the merits of decoupling the genomics sector completely.

For foreign adversaries, DNA data is “the new gold”, and Beijing directly supports its "national champions", BGI and MGI, with the aim of reaching global industrial dominance by 2049.
The output from a DNA sequencer, undated
The output from a DNA sequencer, undatedAP Photo

The stakes are exceedingly high; genetic and health data, by its very nature, holds the key to understanding the most intimate aspects of human, animal, and plant biology. Genomics will boost personalised medicine and lead to breakthroughs in new disease treatment.  

For foreign adversaries, DNA data is “the new gold”, and Beijing directly supports its "national champions", BGI and MGI, with the aim of reaching global industrial dominance by 2049.

Notwithstanding the health and economic dependencies Europe would face once China dominates this sector, the potential misuse of such data could have far-reaching consequences, from surveillance and targeting individuals based on their genetic profile to genetically enhanced individuals or engineered viruses. 

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Human dignity, privacy and rule of law are all on the line

Reports from China show Beijing is already trying, and BGI’s complicity in mass surveillance of Chinese citizens and enabling the Uyghur genocide has been tirelessly exposed.

Labelled by The Pentagon as a "Chinese military company", BGI’s ongoing presence across Europe should heighten the urgency for the Europeans to adopt a more cautious approach. This is not about stoking the flames of techno-protectionism, but about safeguarding the fundamental rights to privacy, security, and ethical governance in the face of real and present dangers. 

The EU, guided by its commitment to human dignity, privacy, and the rule of law, must establish robust regulatory frameworks and security controls specifically tailored to the genomics sector.
A lab dish containing embryos that have been injected with Cas9 protein and PCSK9 sgRNA is seen in a laboratory in Shenzhen, October 2018
A lab dish containing embryos that have been injected with Cas9 protein and PCSK9 sgRNA is seen in a laboratory in Shenzhen, October 2018AP Photo/Mark Schiefelbein

The EU’s recommendation last year for a risk assessment on biotechnology or NATO’s recently published first-ever strategy on Biotechnology and Human Enhancement Technology are good first steps, but researchers, businesses and citizens across the genomics sector remain exposed.  

To this end, the EU, guided by its commitment to human dignity, privacy, and the rule of law, must establish robust regulatory frameworks and security controls specifically tailored to the genomics sector.

This may include stringent vetting processes, limitations on data export, on-site audits on companies headquartered in foreign adversaries, and the fostering of EU-based alternatives for genomic research and analysis.

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The EU can also follow the Canadian example to tighten research security by barring funding for sensitive research projects linked to one of the 103 foreign entities that pose a risk to its national security.  

We must protect our citizens

Given that genomics spans multiple areas, we must also ensure alignment between the public and private sectors to protect EU citizens and businesses.

More stringent restrictions for Mindray, BGI and MGI in our public sector will be toothless if these same entities can access the European market through the private sector. We must warn major European industry players such as Eurofins and Oxford Nanopore who partner with MGI Tech and BGI Group about the national security risks of working with Chinese state-linked genomics companies.

It also underlines the urgent need for the European Commission to ramp up its Single Intelligence Analysis Capacity to acquire better intelligence, map dependencies and intervene against threats to the Union’s economic security.

The path forward is undoubtedly complex, fraught with diplomatic nuances and economic considerations. However, in the realm of genomics, the EU and its member states must prioritise the protection of their citizens and their health and genetic information.

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Decoupling, in this context, is not only a matter of security but also about upholding the values upon which the EU is built.

Miriam Lexmann (EPP, Slovakia), Juozas Olekas (S&D, Lithuania), Bart Groothuis MEP (Renew, Netherlands), Reinhard Bütikofer (Greens/EFA, Germany), Anna Fotyga (ECR, Poland) are Members of the European Parliament.

At Euronews, we believe all views matter. Contact us at view@euronews.com to send pitches or submissions and be part of the conversation.

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