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Is China preparing for bio-warfare under cover of fighting Covid-19?

Chinese President Xi Jinping, also general secretary of the Communist Party of China (CPC) Central Committee and chairman of the Central Military Commission, inspects the novel coronavirus pneumonia prevention and control work in Beijing, last year (Xinhua/Pang Xinglei/IANS)

Known for its technology theft, China could now be accumulating genome data across the globe using its Covid-19 testing kits as the tool.  According to a recent Reuters report, top security officials from the United States have warned American labs against using Chinese tests because of concern that China was seeking to gather foreign genetic data for its own research.

The report said that BGI Group, the world’s largest genomics company, based in Shenzhen, 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.

BGI has rejected the concerns of the US officials. However, the documents reviewed by Reuters neither contradict nor support that US suspicion.

According to another Reuters report, BGI Group, has built around 58 labs in 18 countries and has sold around 35 million rapid testing kits. These equipment are being promoted by Chinese embassies in a bid to extend China’s virus diplomacy. Also, the virus data being generated on its equipment is being shared to National GeneBank, which is also funded by the Chinese Communist Party.

The report also draws parallels between BGI Group and Huawei Technologies Co. The telecommunication giant’s 5G technology is being used to capture personal information that China can exploit. Huawei had earlier acknowledged their relationship with BGI since its high-powered systems were being used to store a staggering volume of data produced by gene sequencing.

A report by Human Rights Watch lists the advantages that the company will potentially gain from the genetic material. The information collected and stored by the company poses risks as family medical history and illness and other personal genetic information could be compromised. There is also a risk that the genetic data could be weaponised including intentional release of biological agents to decimate inhabitants of foreign countries. A hostile state can also use the data to target individuals with genetic disorders such as depression, making them vulnerable to extortion and manipulation.

The idiosyncrasies of the military or national decision makers could be used as a mechanism of influence by Chinese intelligence agencies through the knowledge of genetic makeup. The data can also reveal a country’s vulnerability to specific diseases.

An analysis of patents filed by the company suggests that BGI Group has worked for the Chinese Military ranging from respiratory bacterium to neurology. This has been disclosed by a special report by Reuters on the relationship between the company and the Chinese Military. China is also exploiting genetics to bolster its military capabilities.

It is pertinent to note that BGI was given high level access to military hospitals in Wuhan to collect throat swabs during the early outbreak of the Covid-19 virus.

Researchers working for the BGI group also have an affiliation to National University of Defence Technology (NUDT), that is headed by China’s Central Military Commission. Companies in the United States are restricted from supplying the University with technology due to national security threat from Tianhe 2 supercomputer – that is used to simulate nuclear explosions.

According to a third report by Reuters published in July 2020, the US Commerce department has blacklisted two of its subsidiaries for human right violations in Xinjiang, where BGI has been conducting genetic analysis of Uighur Muslims being held in detention centres. This leads to suspicions whether the Uighur community would be targeted for bio-experiments to amplify China’s genome war chest.

Under the Made-in-China 2025 project Big Data, artificial intelligence, biomedicine, information technology, drone technology and aviation have been listed as top priorities for research, as China aims to become the world’s unrivalled power by 2050, under its “two centenary” goals.

In the quest for genome data, Chinese hackers have even attempted to breach databases of hospitals located in Europe and America to gain access to medical history of foreign nationals, according to the South China Morning Post.