Senior British lawmaker expresses concern over Chinese gene data harvesting

A senior British lawmaker in conversation with Reuters said that Britain should be concerned about the genetic data harvesting by a Chinese company from millions of women through prenatal tests.

The international news organization’s review of certain scientific papers and company statements revealed that the BGI Group developed these prenatal tests in collaboration with the Chinese military. Additionally, these tests are being used to collect genetic data from every corner of the world for research on population traits.

“I’m always concerned when data leaves the United Kingdom, that it should be treated with the respect and privacy that we would expect here at home, and the concern that this raises is that it may not be so,” Tom Tugendhat, chairman of the British parliament’s Foreign Affairs Select Committee, told Reuters.

“The connections between Chinese genomics firms and the Chinese military do not align with what we would normally expect in the United Kingdom or indeed many other countries.”

A perusal of the privacy policy on the Non-Invasive Prenatal Test (NIPT) website, which is distributed in Britain under the brand NIFTY, shows a clause which states that the collected data can be shared when it is “directly relevant to national security or national defense security” in China.

BGI reassured that they have never shared data for national security purposes and neither have they been asked to do so. The company maintains that it complies with European GDPR data protection rules and has acquired the British certification for personal information management.

“BGI’s NIPT test was developed solely by BGI – not in partnership with China’s military. All NIPT data collected overseas are stored in BGI’s labs in Hong Kong and are destroyed after five years,” it said in an email to Reuters, emphasizing the seriousness taken in matters of data protection, privacy, and ethics.

Tugendhat, co-lead of the China Research Group, a group of Conservative lawmakers that looks to balance the strategic relationship with China, has said that British companies using the tests should have clarity as to location, holder, and the access others, including other governments, would have to it.

“Unless a company has done that, I think it’s perfectly reasonable for British people to be extremely concerned with these connections,” he said.

Tugendhat is one of nine British lawmakers currently sanctioned by China for stressing the alleged human rights abuses in the Xinjiang district of China. Beijing has described this as “lies and disinformation”.