Bipartisan legislation was introduced in both houses of Congress Thursday that would effectively ban China’s largest genomics company from doing business in the U.S., after years of warnings from intelligence officials that Beijing is gathering genetic information about Americans and others in ways that could harm national security.
The bills, backed by leaders of the House Select Committee on the Chinese Communist Party and the Senate Homeland Security Committee, target BGI, formerly known as Beijing Genomics Institute, which in 2021 was blacklisted by the Pentagon as a Chinese military company. Five company affiliates also have been sanctioned by the Commerce Department, which accused at least two of them of improperly using genetic information against ethnic minorities in China.
In an exclusive interview with NBC News, Rep. Mike Gallagher, R-Wis., and Rep. Raja Krishnamoorthi, D-Ill., said their legislation would ban BGI — or any company using its technology — from federal contracts, a move the company said in a statement would “drive BGI from the U.S. market.”
BGI “remains a leading supplier of genetic sequencing equipment within the American market,” Gallagher said. “We think that’s a bad idea. And that’s what we’re trying to stop.”
Similar legislation was introduced in the Senate by Gary Peters, D-Mich., who chairs the Homeland Security Committee, and Bill Hagerty, R-Tenn. With bipartisan, bicameral support, the backers say the bills have a good chance of becoming law.
“This bill will protect Americans’ personal health and genetic information from foreign adversaries who have the ability and motivation to use it to undermine our national security,” Peters told NBC News.
In a statement, BGI said it “fully supports protecting personal data, but the legislation which will effectively drive BGI from the U.S. market will not accomplish this goal, and rather will restrict competition, raise health care costs, and limit access to technologies.”
The company said it “does not operate clinical laboratories or collect patient samples, and has no access to personal or genetic data,” and “none of BGI is in any way controlled by or linked to the Chinese government or the military.”
Krishnamoorthi said the evidence suggests otherwise.
“BGI has extensive collaboration with the People’s Liberation Army,” he said. “They’ve published numerous papers in conjunction with the PLA with regard to their research. And so this type of military civil fusion, which often occurs in the [People’s Republic of China], is of great concern, especially when they’re going to be collecting data, potentially on Americans to be then used in research with the PLA.”
BGI and its subsidiaries spent $420,000 on lobbying in 2023, according to Open Secrets, a group that tracks lobbying expenditures.
An investigation by Reuters in 2021 concluded that BGI’s popular prenatal test, taken by millions of pregnant women around the world — but not in the U.S. — was developed in collaboration with the Chinese military and was being used by the firm to collect genetic data.
The U.S. National Counterintelligence and Security Center reacted to the Reuters report by warning that “non-invasive prenatal testing kits marketed by Chinese biotech firms serve an important medical function, but they can also provide another mechanism for the People’s Republic of China and Chinese biotech companies to collect genetic and genomic data from around the globe,” the center said.
A public bulletin by the counterintelligence center in February 2021 warned that China “has for years been able to gain access to U.S. health care data, including genomic data, through a variety of channels, both legal and illegal.” The bulletin added that this collection “poses equally serious risks, not only to the privacy of Americans, but also to the economic and national security of the U.S.”
Bill Evanina, who retired in 2021 as the top counterintelligence official in the U.S. government, said he worked for years to sound the alarm about BGI and other Chinese companies gathering genetic data. He compared BGI to a Chinese 5G telecom giant banned from the U.S. market over spying risks.
“From a biotech perspective, BGI is no different than Huawei,” he said. “It’s this legitimate business that’s also masking intelligence gathering for nefarious purposes.”
Evanina described multiple layers of risk from genetic data, when combined with other personal data the U.S. says has been stolen by Chinese intelligence services. One is economic — China could leap ahead in the cutting-edge biotech industry, which promises to transform health care.
“Genomics and DNA is the new oil. It’s a $4 trillion industry,” Evanina said.
But Evanina and Gallagher said there is also a concern that China could use genetic data to create targeted bioweapons that would work on one group of people but not another.
“It also ranges up to the threat of bespoke bioweapons that could target either an individual or a class of individuals. And for your [readers] who might think that that’s the stuff of science fiction or in the distant future, it’s not,” Gallagher said. “We know that’s … a technology that the CCP would love to perfect.”
There are also worries that China, which does not universally embrace Western medical ethics, could seek to use genetics to boost human capabilities, including for military purposes. Evanina pointed to a report that China studied the genetic information of people who lived at high altitude in the Himalaya mountains in an effort to “build capacity” among Chinese soldiers who have to fight at high altitudes.
Another concern is that genetic information could be used to target vulnerable Americans for espionage recruitment.
“Let’s assume, hypothetically, they had the ability to say, ‘Oh, look at Bill Evanina. OK, we just found out from all these data breaches, he’s behind on his mortgage. He lost his job. He’s got two kids in college. Oh, and he’s got a genetic sequencing marker that shows him predisposed to having hepatitis or you know, Parkinson’s. He’s very vulnerable.’”
The threat, Evanina said, is not theoretical. U.S. spy agencies have collected evidence of China’s malicious intent when it comes to genetic material, he said.
“We know this because we collect this data from them covertly,” he said. “This is not, like, made-up stuff. There is clandestine collection of their intent and their capability.”