Ky Olbert

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BGI: The Huawei of Genomics

BGI: The Huawei of Genomics

June 4th, 2020

Kyle Olbert

Since the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, nations around the world have struggled to spin up their coronavirus testing capacity. Many have turned to BGI, the Beijing Genomics Institute.

BGI Group, called “BGI” for short, is a Shenzhen-based conglomerate of both for-profit and non-profit firms that was founded in 1999 and essentially “spun off” from the Chinese Academy of Sciences in 2007.

During the 2003 SARS outbreak, as nations around the world rushed to understand the situation, researchers from the Chinese Academy of Military Medical Sciences, China’s National Center for Genome Information and — you guessed it — BGI, rushed to sequence the virus, publishing their SARS genome in the May 2003 issue of the Chinese Science Bulletin. This Chinese military/civilian team — which included all of the founders of BGI Group — very nearly succeeded in being the first to publish a full SARS genome, but in a stinging blow, they were beat by a team led by Dr. Marco Marra, director of the Michael Smith Genome Science Centre at the British Columbia Cancer Agency.

In the concluding paragraph of their research paper, the Chinese team wrote of the SARS virus with wonder and awe, “More comprehensive research and solid data are urgently needed to understand such a witty and powerful organism with all its enigmas and miracles, hidden in such a tiny genome, wrapped with a human coat, successfully surpassing the human defense system, and fatally attacking humans with substances almost entirely hijacked from humans.”

BGI’s pioneering research didn’t stop there. By 2012, they were working with others to sequence a full bat genome. By 2018, their researchers were coauthoring papers on things “highly pathogenic H5N8 avian influenza virus” with researchers from places like the Chinese Academy of Science’s Key Laboratory of Special Pathogens and Biosafety at the Wuhan Institute of Virology.

Perhaps, then, it makes perfect sense, then, for countries to partner with a firm so intimately knowledgable about deadly viruses, animal vectors, and human genomics.

Indeed, according to an April 20th, 2020 press release, BGI Group is now providing coronavirus “testing and intervention” in some 80 countries, including in the United States.

Naturally, at a time when supply chains are under a microscope, the idea of being dependent on a foreign rival or adversary — particularly China — for diagnostics and other essentials has led to widespread outcry. Perhaps nowhere has that concern been more palpable than in Australia, where mining tycoon Andrew Forrest’s Minderoo Foundation partnered with BGI to roll out COVID-19 testing, and then subsequently invited one of China’s former “top cyber spies” to hijack a press conference with Australia’s Health Minister.

It’s not quite clear how Aussie mining magnate Andrew Forrest hooked up with BGI, but there are many reasons to be concerned about BGI, from matters of ethnics to matters of security.

Within BGI Group are several subsidiaries. The main subsidiary involved in COVID-19 testing is BGI Genomics. Until the pandemic, Caixin reports that BGI Genomics’ core fertility business generated more than half of their revenue by screening for fetal abnormalities. It’s led by a young doctor named Ye Yin, who joined BGI Group in 2002. A few of his online bios state that he played an “indispensable role” in the 2003 SARS effort, although he wasn’t listed on the aforementioned research paper announcing the Chinese team’s successful sequencing of the of virus.

BGI Group’s name has surfaced with respect to questions of human rights, and certainly researchers are taking a close look at the BGI and what role they might play in the China’s bio-banking of vulnerable populations’ involuntarily-collected specimens, especially since recent reports have highlighted concerns that China might be weaponizing biotech to, for instance, pursue what Retired General Zhang Shibo described in his book as “specific ethnic genetic attacks.” While this idea may sound far-fetched, researchers at Cambridge University have warned that countries may seek to develop such ethnic-specific weapons.

And indeed, recent reporting from Axios on BGI's plans for a Uyghur gene bank in Xinjiang/East Turkistan further underscores these fears. In fact, since 1994, China has been collecting the biological specimens of its ethnic minorities, and it already has two bio-banks in the Uyghur Homeland. The full extent of BGI's involvement in these efforts isn't clear, but it does make one suspicious of BGI's sudden generosity towards populations who are genetically dissimilar to its typical ethnic Han Chinese customers. For instance, in 2018, BGI Chairman and co-founder Wang Jian did a three-nation tour of Africa, signing MOU's with Kenya, South Africa, and Ethiopia. This may well have been an example of "win-win" development, but as we see later, there may be reason to worry about BGI's grand vision.

BGI Group is often referred to by its alias, Huada Group. One its other many subsidiaries is called FGI, or the Forensic Genomics Institute, which itself sometimes goes by the name “Shenzhen Huada Forensic Science and Technology Company.” Their main line of business is paternity testing. The privacy-conscious amongst us will be alarmed to hear that they’ve amassed some 100K DNA samples and will gladly send them to customers via WeChat for extra convenience.

Besides the aforementioned Dr. Ye Yin, at least one other executive at BGI Group has a mystery in his biography: Chairman and co-founder Wang Jian. BGI Group previously posted this version of his CV, which shows a strange gap in his education in the years before he came to study in America… presumably the type of thing which might raise counterintelligence experts’ eyebrows.

BGI Group is concerning in yet another respect, too. BGI was tapped by the Chinese government to help operate China’s state-funded National GeneBank (CNGB) using BGI Group’s technology, talent, and facilities. The CNGB website is actually a subsection of the BGI website. The CNGB’s opening was even featured on ChinaMil, the PLA’s English-language website — a less than-than-subtle hint that the Chinese military has some interest in the project — and CNGB and BGI Group researchers followed up by writing a joint paper describing their vision for this leviathan undertaking.

In their words, “Genetic resources are important national strategic resources. Their preservation, protection and rational utilization form a solid foundation to guarantee national security and to build national competitiveness for the future.” They go on to compare China’s bio-banking to the bio-banking efforts of the US, EU, and Japan.

They continue (translated), “In the agricultural era, the more arable land a country has, the greater the advantage; in the industrial era, the more resources such as oil and minerals, the greater the advantage; and in the age of life, having more genetic resources that can be simultaneously read and used, the greater the advantage. The completion of the National Gene Bank is of great significance to China.”

In state it more clearly, these researchers are announcing to the world that they believe we have entered into a new era: one where genetic resources are foundational to national security and where strategic advantage goes to whomever collects and uses more genetic data more efficiently.

In 2013, the Wall Street Journal reported on a BGI study of some 2,220 extremely high-IQ (160+) mostly-American volunteers. The goal, allegedly, was to unlock the mysteries of intelligence. Perhaps we should worry... John Louth of the Royal United Services Institute is warning that China plans to engineer "super-soldiers."

I suppose the question we should all be asking now is: who exactly has our DNA?


Kyle Olbert is an independent researcher located in Washington, DC. The author welcomes comments or corrections.