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China working on genes to make soldiers tougher

Chinese soldiers (Photo: IANS)

China has been carrying out genetic research to enhance the strength of its soldiers in high altitude border areas, according to an in-depth study carried out by Reuters news agency.

BGI Group, the world’s largest genomics company, has worked with China’s military projects seeking to make members of the ethnic Han Chinese majority less susceptible to altitude sickness. The company has been found to have undertaken genetic research that would benefit soldiers in some border areas, according to a Reuters report.

While the US is already worried about such research to enhance the strength of Chinese soldiers, the study gives cause for concern to India as well amid the military stand-off in Ladakh.

Reuters review of research, patent filings and other documents has found that the BGI Group has worked with China’s military on research that ranges from mass testing for respiratory pathogens to brain science.

BGI has sold millions of COVID-19 test kits outside China since the outbreak of the new coronavirus pandemic, including to Europe, Australia and the United States. Shares of BGI Genomics Co, the company’s subsidiary listed on the Shenzhen stock exchange, have doubled in price over the past 12 months, giving it a market value of about $9 billion.

But top U.S. security officials have warned American labs against using Chinese tests because of concern China was seeking to gather foreign genetic data for its own research. BGI has denied that.


The documents reviewed by Reuters neither contradict nor support that US suspicion. Still, the material shows that the links between the Chinese military and BGI run deeper than previously understood, illustrating how China has moved to integrate private technology companies into military-related research under President Xi Jinping, the Reuters report states.

The U.S. government has recently been warned by an expert panel that rival countries and non-state actors might find and target genetic weaknesses in the U.S. population and a competitor such as China could use genetics to augment the strength of its own military personnel.

Elsa Kania, an adjunct senior fellow at the Center for a New American Security think tank, who has provided testimony to U.S. Congressional committees, told Reuters that China’s military has pushed research on brain science, gene editing and the creation of artificial genomes that could have an application in future bioweapons. She added that such weapons are not currently technically feasible.

In response to Reuters’ questions, BGI said it adheres to international standards and Chinese laws related to open science, data sharing and genomic research. It said its collaboration with military researchers was for academic purposes only.

China’s defence ministry did not respond to requests for comment.


Chinese technology companies have come under increasing scrutiny by the United States and were subject to mounting restrictions under Donald Trump administration.  In November, the Department of Commerce proposed a rule to add gene editing software to the U.S. export control list, saying it could be used to create biological weapons. Officials in the new administration of President Joe Biden have signalled a continued tough approach to what they see as a rising threat from Beijing.

A technology industry panel on artificial intelligence, appointed by the U.S. government and chaired by former Google Chief Executive Eric Schmidt, raised the alarm in October about China’s financial support for its biotechnology sector, its advantages in collecting biological data, and the PLA’s interest in potential military applications.

The panel, which will deliver its final report in March, warned about adversaries using artificial intelligence to identify genetic weaknesses in a population and engineering pathogens to exploit them, and genetic research designed to enhance soldiers’ mental or physical strength.

The panel recommended that the U.S. government “take a more aggressive public posture regarding BGI,” citing national security risks posed by the company’s links to the Chinese government and its genomic data.