Call for probe into Chinese genetics company over pregnancy test data

A Chinese company selling pregnancy tests in the UK must be investigated over the potential risk that genetic data may be shared with the government in Beijing, a cross-party group of parliamentarians has warned.

MPs and peers have called for the Information Commissioner's Office (ICO) to launch a probe into BGI Group, China's leading genomics company.

They raised an investigation by the Reuters news agency in 2021 which suggested the firm was using the genetic information collected from expectant mothers around the world "for sweeping research on the traits of populations".

The report claimed the NIFTY non-invasive pre-natal test is a source of genetic data for the company, which it said was working with the Chinese military to improve "population quality" and on genetic research to combat hearing loss and altitude sickness in soldiers.

The company has denied being linked to the Chinese state, and said it had "previously refuted" allegations made by the politicians in their letter to the ICO.

MPs raised concerns after entities of BGI were blacklisted by the US government in March over allegations it conducted genetic analysis and surveillance activities for Beijing, which Washington said was used to repress ethnic minorities in China.

In their letter to the ICO, the politicians said: "It is vital consumers have full transparency in order to carefully assess the risks associated with sharing such data with state-linked Chinese companies."

They raised the alarm about China's national intelligence law, which requires private companies to share information with the state if requested for security purposes.

According to BGI's website, the NIFTY test is used to analyse blood samples from pregnant women to screen for genetic abnormalities, including Down's Syndrome.

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But Tory former health minister Lord Bethell, a co-signatory of the letter, said while BGI "is a remarkable genomics and diagnostics company…we just don't know for sure what it does with that data".

"I would love to think it is respectful of privacy and security and individual rights, but we know from the practices of the government in China that it is using genomic data for surveillance, " he said.

"We have got to ask ourselves can we really trust BGI to be doing genomic testing here in the UK?"

Lord Bethell signed the letter alongside Tory MP Henry Smith and Labour's Siobhain McDonagh, Taiwo Owatemi and Charlotte Nichols.

Former Lib Dem minister Alistair Carmichael, another co-signatory, described BGI as the "next Huawei", claiming it was "a question of 'when' rather than 'if' it is banned in the UK".

"With that in mind, the government should simply get on with it," he said.

"In March, the science minister George Freeman told parliament that BGI is a 'danger point'. Why then is BGI being allowed to open a new centre in London while continuing to build partnerships with UK universities?

"This is a national security failing of the highest order. The government must act."

A BGI spokesperson said it "will be fully transparent and welcomes any opportunity to provide information on our work in the UK".

"We believe in transparent, collaborative research and openly sharing results, a principle that is crucial to providing the greatest benefits for all of humanity. We will continue to advocate for open and inclusive global scientific collaboration with the aim of fighting diseases more effectively and improving the health of mankind."

The company added it "does not engage in unethical practices and does not provide gene technology for the surveillance of Uighurs. BGI Group does not condone and would never be involved in any human rights abuses".