Invisible threats / Reliance on overseas firms for genomic analysis risks data leaks

The Yomiuri Shimbun

The Japanese government’s economic security concerns extend to the leakage of genetic information.

In January, a senior Japanese government official received some blunt advice during a meeting with U.S. government officials.

“You should be careful when dealing with the ‘Huawei of the genomics industry.’”

The United States has tightened its restrictions on Chinese telecommunications giant Huawei Technologies Co., including the imposition of sanctions such as a trade ban, citing national security concerns. The “similar threat” the U.S. officials were referring to is China’s BGI Group, a gene analysis company headquartered in Shenzhen, Guangdong Province.

Established in 1999, BGI has branches and research laboratories in nations including Japan, the United States, Britain and Denmark. As of June 2021, BGI’s prenatal tests had been used by more than 9.4 million women around the world, and genetic tests to screen for cancer had been used by more than 130,000 people. Following the outbreak of the novel coronavirus pandemic, BGI developed a test kit that uses genome technology. These kits have been sold or provided to more than 180 nations and territories, which has boosted BGI’s sales.

BGI’s rapid growth has aroused alarm among governments, legislative assemblies and media outlets in the United States and elsewhere.

In a March 2021 report, the U.S. National Security Commission on Artificial Intelligence, an independent entity that provides policy recommendations to the president and Congress, warned that BGI might be serving “as a global collection mechanism for Chinese government genetic databases.”

In July that year, Reuters reported that data collected from prenatal tests could be “shared” with Chinese authorities. In September, Sen. Tom Cotton (R-Ark.) coauthored an open letter to Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin and other senior U.S. officials. This letter said BGI research “could have an application” in future bioweapons, and that the company “is involved in activities contrary to the national security and foreign policy interests of the United States.”

The Yomiuri Shimbun
Image from the BGI website

In July 2020, the U.S. Commerce Department slapped sanctions on BGI subsidiaries that conducted “genetic analyses targeted at Muslim minority groups from the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region.”

Japan watching closely

Following the lead of the United States and other nations, the Japanese government also has been carefully watching BGI’s activities.

The government effectively excluded BGI from state-led genome analysis projects in February 2021 by adding conditions that companies must meet to participate in it. However, there is no legal framework preventing Japanese private companies, universities and other entities from directly asking BGI to conduct such analyses.

“We can’t deny the possibility that genome information of Japanese people could go through BGI and end up in the Chinese government’s hands,” a senior Health, Labor and Welfare Ministry official told The Yomiuri Shimbun.

The website of a Japanese arm the BGI established in 2011 listed 72 Japanese universities and research institutes as its main customers as of Feb. 16. One of these facilities is a national university in the Kansai region.

“We don’t do this now, but five or six years ago we asked them to analyze some data as part of a human genome research project,” an official of the university’s medical department said. “The main reason was that it was inexpensive.”

Shizuoka Cancer Center President Ken Yamaguchi, a member of the government’s genomic medical treatment council, said: “From a genomic medical treatment perspective, BGI’s involvement in Japan probably isn’t that large, but the full picture is hard to gauge. Any medical treatment business could, of course, use a low-cost service.”

BGI headquarters denies that information it held could be leaked to outside parties.

“We have developed genomic analysis services that are used worldwide. We have cooperated with authoritative universities and research institutes to actively contribute to public health in many areas,” a company official told The Yomiuri Shimbun. “We faithfully adhere to each nation’s laws and guidelines, and our corporate activities follow strict international regulations.”

Battle for supremacy

Why do entities in Japan rely on foreign companies to conduct genomic analyses?

One key factor behind this situation is that many Japanese companies withdrew from the production of next-generation sequencers, devices that can quickly read large volumes of genetic information. The next-generation sequencer market is now dominated by foreign companies such as BGI and Illumina, Inc. of the United States.

Washington’s moves to apply pressure on BGI stem from more than security reasons alone. The United States and China are locked in a battle for technological supremacy in genomics, which will have growing practical implications in a wide range of fields including agriculture and medical care.

Kyoto-based Shimadzu Corp. stopped manufacturing next-generation sequencers after 2015. “Japan simply couldn’t keep up with the speed of technological innovation,” a Shimadzu representative said. “It was incredibly hard for Japanese companies to keep it going.”

The government will, under new economic security promotion legislation, nurture and support companies that develop technologies in areas including space and artificial intelligence. However, support for genome-related technologies likely will be an issue that needs to be addressed in the future.

A senior official of the Cabinet Secretariat admitted this was a pressing matter.

“The [economic security] promotion legislation will finally mark a step forward in bolstering Japan’s economic security,” the official said. “But many issues haven’t been dealt with yet, such as protecting personal data that has been transferred across international borders.”