BGI denies it shared genetic data of pregnant women with China’s military and vows to continue overseas push
- The denial came after a report last week that BGI developed its non-invasive prenatal tests, branded as NIFTY, in collaboration with the PLA
- BGI says that it only provides prenatal testing technology in its scientific collaboration, in line with research protocols
BGI, a leading Chinese genetics company, has denied that it collected and shared the private data of pregnant women with China’s military and pledged to continue its overseas business push.
The denial came after a Reuters report last week that BGI developed its non-invasive prenatal (NIPT) tests, branded as NIFTY, in collaboration with the People’s Liberation Army.
BGI’s prenatal test, one of the most popular in the world, is a source of genetic data for the company, which has worked with the Chinese military to improve “population quality” and on genetic research to combat hearing loss and altitude sickness in soldiers, according to the Reuters report.
In an interview with the South China Morning Post, BGI chief product officer Peng Zhiyu denied the Reuters report. The company issued a statement last week also refuting the report.
Peng said that BGI only provides prenatal testing technology in its scientific collaboration, in line with research protocols.
“Our partners use the data they collect upon user consent … and BGI doesn’t have access to personal data during the process,” Peng said. He added that BGI uses the same data protocol with its research partners, regardless of who they are and where they are from. A Reuters spokeswoman said the agency stands by its reporting.
According to the Reuters report, which was based on months of investigation into scientific papers and company statements, some of BGI’s research also included using private data to “single out Tibetan and Uygur minorities to find links between their genes and their characteristics”.
BGI has published research papers with military-linked research organisations, including the PLA General Hospital and Southwest Hospital of The Third Military Medical University, but the company says it has not shared any customer data from the NIPT tests with the military. In China, many top-notch hospitals are affiliated with the military.
The Reuters report has set off alarm bells in Europe. A German health ministry spokesperson said last Friday that Germany takes the report about BGI passing personal DNA data to the Chinese authorities very seriously and is discussing the matter with the relevant Berlin ministries and the European Commission, according to a separate report by Reuters.
Li Ning, a vice-president with BGI, said the company has reached out to its key NIFTY clients to allay any concerns in the wake of the report.
“We will continue to grow our business for [prenatal testing], as well as our collaboration with research institutes and public health systems globally,” said Li, who oversees the company’s international development and operations, in BGI’s interview with the Post on Saturday.
“Currently we have a lot of collaborators that have strong trust in us, and we have been communicating with our clients actively on the incorrect media reports,” Li said.
At stake is a global market for NIPT tests valued at US$2.9 billion in 2020, which is expected to grow to US$6.6 billion in 2028, according to a recent report by New York-based consulting firm Polaris Market Research. BGI’s NIFTY technology has tested over 8 million women globally as a clinical procedure, but Li says less than 5 per cent of these tests were carried out overseas.
BGI said that it has not stored genetic data collected from overseas pregnant women at the state-funded China National GeneBank. Instead, all DNA test results from overseas prenatal testing have been stored in BGI’s lab in Hong Kong, to comply with the European Union’s General Data Protection Regulation.