Concerns about China acquiring the DNA of American service members prompted the Pentagon to issue an advisory late last year to the entire force against using commercial popular DNA testing kits to find out one’s ancestry, Breitbart News has learned.
“There is increased concern in the scientific community that outside parties are exploiting the use of genetic data for questionable purposes, including mass surveillance and the ability to track individuals without their authorization or awareness,” the Pentagon said in its December 20 advisory that was first reported by Yahoo News. However, neither the memo or the Yahoo News report specifically mentioned China as the main concern.
But two congressional sources told Breitbart News that the Pentagon’s warning was prompted by concern over China’s efforts to obtain DNA and other personal health information from companies popular in the U.S.
It is not clear how China could use American service member DNA. Experts have warned that DNA could be used to identify and target undercover military agents, using small samples of blood or saliva. China is already reportedly building a database of Uyghur Muslims’ DNA as part of a mass surveillance and control program.
A 2019 congressionally-commissioned report warned about China obtaining genetic data from Americans through mergers and acquisitions, and investments in U.S. companies.
There is particular concern over popular DNA testing companies such as 23andMe, which is a U.S. company headquartered in Sunnyvale, California, that boasts more than 12 million customers.
In 2015, Chinese investment firm WuXi Healthcare Ventures invested $10.45 million to a $115 million venture capital round E financing of 23andMe, to enhance and expand its operations in the U.S. and abroad, according to the February 2019 report prepared for the U.S.-China Economic and Security Review Commission.
At the time WuXi Healthcare Ventures invested in 23andMe, it was the corporate venture arm of Chinese pharmaceutical firm WuXi PharmaTech, now known as WuXi AppTec. Also in 2015, WuXi PharmaTech acquired the U.S. firm NextCODE Health for $65 million and took the genome sequence analysis platform of NextCODE Health to increase the company’s access to labs certified to access the U.S. healthcare market and to broaden its customer base to U.S. doctors and patients.
WuXi Healthcare Ventures, which was based in Cambridge, Massachusetts, merged in 2017 with Chinese investment firm Frontline BioVentures to become 6 Dimensions Capital. In November 2018, a U.S. Trade Representative report singled out 6 Dimensions Capital using venture capital to acquire U.S. biotechnology.
Breitbart News asked 23andMe if any Chinese investors still had financial interest in the company and whether the company shared customer data with any Chinese investors, companies, or labs.
Andy Kill, 23andMe communications director, said in a response, “We do not share any customer information with investors, or any China-based companies or labs. We do all of our lab work in the US.”
The U.S.-China Economic and Security Review Commission report said the worry is that the Chinese government could compel private Chinese companies to disclose any U.S. data they have collected or surreptitiously take the data. The report said:
Although none of the investments or partnerships detailed appear to involve state-owned enterprises, the possibility remains that the Chinese government may still be able to force or compel private companies in China to disclose the data they have collected (or surreptitiously take the data). While there are no known instances of biotechnology companies handing over patient or customer data to the Chinese government, such a move would not be unprecedented.
There is also the risk of cybertheft. 23andMe’s own chief security officer, David Baker, recently expressed concerns over China wanting to steal the company’s genetic data.
“That is not a billion dollar business; that is a hundred billion dollar business, which is certainly an interest to nation states,” Baker said in a March 9 Telegraph article.
Kill directed Breitbart News to a statement on its website. It said, “while our teams regularly review and improve our security practices to help ensure the integrity of our systems and customer information, it is never possible to fully guarantee against breaches in security.”
Since taking office, the Trump administration has been quietly increasing its oversight of U.S. firms allowing significant investment from Chinese investors.
U.S. start-up firm Veritas Genetics was forced to close its U.S. operations in December after failing to attract new investors who were skittish over the company’s heavy Chinese funding. In June, the Committee on Foreign Investment in the United States (CFIUS) forced health-tech company PatientsLikeMe to find a new buyer after forcing its Chinese owner to divest its stake.
Members of Congress have also been increasing oversight of Chinese activities in the U.S., too.
Rep. Jim Banks (R-IN), a China hawk and co-chair of the House Armed Services Committee’s Future of Defense Task Force, hinted in a tweet in January the concerns behind DOD’s memo, specifically naming 23andMe:
In Dec, we learned @DeptofDefense banned US service members from using genetic testing kits like 23AndMe.
— Jim Banks (@RepJimBanks) January 13, 2020
Banks also said at a hearing in February that the task force was investigating the issue.
Under questioning by Banks, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Mark Milley testified that China obtaining American DNA would multiply their ability to exploit individuals.
“There’s all kinds of things that can be done. And — and I don’t want to, you know, spook the herd, but there’s a lot of things that could be done,” he said.
Defense Secretary Mark Esper added, “Particularly at a time when they’re building a 21st century surveillance state in China, if you think about them exporting that technology abroad and being able to identify key Americans, whatever the case may be.”