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Feds warn of strings attached to a Chinese DNA firm’s hunt for COVID partners in U.S.



Typically, when someone in the Unites States is heard expressing distrust about how biometric data is collected, used and stored, it is a privacy advocate who is pointing a finger at a patronizing government figure.

The biometric shoe is tied securely on the other foot, however, as federal officials issue dire warnings about a Chinese biotech firm fishing for U.S. investment opportunities.

And just as with people and organizations here who are pushing back on wholesale collection of biometric data by governments and commercial companies, the federal government has the right to stop the misuse of its citizens’ personal information by foreign interests.

That company is Beijing-bankrolled BGI, the largest biotech firm in the world, and it is expanding its presence and influence throughout the U.S. health care industry.

Simultaneously, the dictatorial Chinese government has said it intends to be the world leader when it comes to genomic sciences and analytics. It will need more than the data it collects from its own enormous — but demographically somewhat homogeneous — population to do that.

So, BGI is roving the globe seeking to invest in or partner with the best researchers and most successful entrepreneurs in the field. China, however, has no qualms in demanding intellectual property in exchange for its almost bottomless coffers. And it has a reputation for stealing data that it is refused.

BGI reflexively issues placating statements about genomic information, including, of course, biometric data, it runs across while doing business. American broadcaster CBS received one while researching a story about BGI’s big data ambitions.

The note said there is no truth to concerns about U.S. citizens’ biometric information being compromised by BGI operations.

The firm has put out a few of those denials since the beginning of the Covid-19 outbreak in North America. That is because BGI, according to CBS, popped up offering sweet investment and development deals for new testing facilities with at least six states hit early by the pandemic.

The federal government stepped in quickly to warn state leaders of the perceived danger, and all negotiations ended. Still, according to the broadcaster, BGI maintains partnerships with U.S. hospitals and biotech firms.

It is impossible to see clearly beyond BGI’s assurances, but, last July, along with a biometric technology supplier and others, the U.S. Department of Commerce sanctioned two Chinese companies for providing genetic analysis to support the physical and digital persecution of China’s Muslim Uyghur population. Both are BGI subsidiaries.

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