A Chinese company selling pregnancy tests in the UK must be investigated over the potential risk that expectant mothers’ genetic data may be shared with the Chinese government, a cross-party group of parliamentarians have 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, over concerns that data gathered from its NIFTY non-invasive pre-natal tests may be shared with the government in Beijing.
The politicians have shared their concerns about the company after it was blacklisted by the US government, and following the ICO’s recent decision to fine Chinese-owned social media company TikTok over its misuse of data.
Conservative former minister Lord Bethell, Tory MP Henry Smith, Labour MPs Siobhain McDonagh, Taiwo Owatemi and Charlotte Nichols, and Lib Dem former minister Alistair Carmichael wrote to the ICO to call for the investigation.
They raised 2021 reporting by Reuters that suggested BGI was using the genetic information collected from pregnancy testing around the world to “collect genetic data from millions of women for sweeping research on the traits of populations”.
The also raised the alarm about China’s national intelligence law, which requires private companies to share information with the state if requested for security purposes.
The letter 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.
“We must also ensure patients are told about the importance and far-reaching implications of their genetic information – and the risks associated with turning it over.
“Most importantly, we must ensure companies like BGI are completely transparent about their data collection and usage, and what Chinese laws they are subject to.”
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.
Tory former health minister Lord Bethell said: “BGI is a remarkable genomics and diagnostics company. It has phenomenal technology which I admire, but 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 added: “We have got to ask ourselves can we really trust BGI to be doing genomic testing here in the UK.”
Lib Dem MP Mr Carmichael, who has previously raised concerns about the company in Parliament, 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 added.
He went on: “This is a company with proven links to the Chinese military, working in a field that is Beijing’s strategic priority and enables the repression of human rights.
“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 whilst continuing to build partnerships with UK universities?
“This is a national security failing of the highest order. The Government must act.”
A BGI Group spokesman said: “First and foremost, BGI Group 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 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.
BGI emphasised that its labs “meet stringent standards in information security”, adding: “Our data standards globally include the UK’s BS10012 standard, compliance with the EU’s General Data Protection Regulation, and the ISO27001 standard on information security.”
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”.