The Chinese government’s focus on the genomic therapy industry has created a critical vulnerability for the U.S. China is now home to the world’s largest genetics research center, BGI, and is hard at work assembling the most extensive genome repository.
If the Chinese were to overtake the U.S. as the leader in genomic therapies, it would have serious implications for American national security and patient safety. In its research, Beijing has demonstrated a reckless indifference to its own people’s basic rights, having conducted scientific experiments on citizens and attempted to use DNA to track them. Given reports that the Chinese have already purchased a leading European genomics company, we should be concerned that Beijing could next try to track Americans—or, worse, exploit the acquired data to develop biological weapons or withhold therapies for geopolitical gain.
A Chinese-dominated genomics industry would also mean grave changes for our biomedical sector. Consider the methods Beijing has used to achieve its current position: direct technological theft, and subsidizing Chinese firms and tying them to international healthcare providers to gain access to foreign intellectual property, etc. These nakedly dishonest practices would become commonplace in a Chinese-helmed world.
Frustratingly, American policies are enabling this state of affairs. Recent reports from HHS’ Office of Inspector General show that the National Institutes of Health is handing over Americans’ genomic data to Chinese companies. These firms, such as BGI and WuXi, have even partnered with Chinese tech giant Huawei to help the government’s efforts. The CMS may also be providing payments to U.S. providers that partner with these Chinese entities. American taxpayers are literally funding Beijing’s research.
If we fail to prevent Chinese genomic dominance, how might the future look? Our dependence on Beijing for antibiotics and other drugs, recently flagged by the Pentagon, is instructive. The Chinese have used their command in the pharmaceutical industry as a bargaining chip in tariff negotiations. As the sole makers of some of our military’s drugs, they wield an additional source of leverage in the case of future conflict.
If you find yourself in a hole, the first step is to stop digging. We must immediately enact stricter guidelines for federal policies to guarantee that public funding never contributes to Chinese genomics efforts and then ensure our R&D in this critical area is not eclipsed by China. I have written to HHS’ OIG to voice concerns and submitted several National Defense Authorization Act amendments to this end. I am also developing a unified strategy to protect Americans’ genomic data. Beijing blocks its citizens’ DNA from being shared or stored outside China because they know the data’s value. Why don’t we consider similar measures to prevent others from benefiting from Americans’ DNA?
Chinese domination of the genomics industry poses an extraordinary danger to Americans; medical professionals, healthcare executives and policymakers alike must recognize the extent of the threat. Failure to do so will put our nation’s well-being at risk.
More commentaries from members of the 116th Congress on the state of healthcare