EXCLUSIVE: Senators Sound Alarm Over US Funding to Chinese Biotech Firm Over National Security Threats

A group of Republican senators are probing the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) over its partnership with Chinese biotech firm BGI, warning that the collaboration could give China a competitive edge while putting U.S. security in danger. The Chinese genomics giant, which has been blacklisted by both the Defense and Commerce Departments, has been working with the USDA since as early as 2018 on the Earth BioGenome Project, which aims to sequence the genomes of over 1.5 million species over a 10-year span to catalog the earth’s biodiversity. Following the partnership’s announcement, the USDA’s Agricultural Research Service awarded $1 million to BGI. The Chinese firm and the state-funded China National GeneBank it runs occupy leadership roles in four of the project’s nine subcommittees, including chairmanship of the subcommittee of IT and Informatics. The lawmakers said they are “gravely concerned” about BGI’s participation in this “massive effort to sequence all of life,” a partnership they said was uncovered while tracking U.S. government funding during a probe into COVID-19 origins. As much as genomic modification is important to agriculture, safeguards are necessary to protect the security of U.S. genomic research data, the lawmakers wrote on July 25 in a letter to USDA Secretary Tom Vilsack. “Our government must take extreme caution to prevent sponsoring research that gives any sensitive materials and intellectual property to the Chinese Communist Party,” Sen. Roger Marshall (R-Kan.), who leads the letter, told The Epoch Times. “The CCP views biology as a domain of warfare which includes the study of all plant and animal living organisms,” he said, using the acronym for the Chinese Communist Party. “The USDA and all government agencies involved in cutting edge biological research must have better oversight when corresponding with CCP-sponsored organizations that are not immediately obvious.” In the letter, co-signed by Sens. Marsha Blackburn (R-Tenn.), Marco Rubio (R-Fla.), and Susan Collins (R-Maine), the lawmakers highlighted the growing concern over China’s aggressive national strategy of military-civil fusion that mobilizes civilian sectors to enhance its military power. Beijing, they said, has been “weaponizing biotech in preparation for strategic advantage in a new domain of biological warfare.” Chinese scientists have engaged in controversial experiments such as creating genetically-altered babies and inserting genes from a micro-animal known as water bears into a human stem cell. Both of these cases, the lawmakers said, have exposed a lack of regard for scientific ethical boundaries in China. Last year, the Department of Defense placed the firm on a sanction list for supporting the “modernization goals of the People’s Liberation Army,” and the Department of Commerce imposed trade restrictions on it in March. Two of its affiliates are also put on the Commerce Department’s blacklist in 2022 for their role in “conducting genetic analyses used to further the repression of Uyghurs and other Muslim minorities.” With China’s expansive anti-espionage law barring transfer of domestic data to foreign enforcement authorities, any U.S. collaboration with BGI or other China-based entities risks denial of data access that would thwart the entire project, the lawmakers note, citing a 2020 U.S.-funded research partnership involving BGI that had to retract its published results after China made changes to data-sharing regulations. “Following the COVID-19 outbreak, the PRC [People’s Republic of China] blocked access to patient and virus samples that could assist in our investigation into the origins of the pandemic, despite data-sharing agreements and multiple-year collaborations between the PRC and U.S. public health agencies and universities,” the letter states. “Even if USDA stopped paying BGI directly, through partnering with BGI and sharing U.S. intellectual property, the collaboration could endanger our security by giving China a strategic competitive edge to hold and store data that U.S. scientists have worked hard to develop.” The senators wanted to know the status USDA’s data sharing agreement with BGI, whether—and to what extent—the Chinese firm has access to USDA research databases, the USDA’s role in the Earth Biogenome Project and the handling of the research data, as well as the department’s contingency plans if they lose access to data at the hands of Chinese entities. They also ask whether the USDA will bar funding to research that involves dangerous pathogens as required by an omnibus spending bill passed in December, and whether the department has funded the project’s over 50 affiliates that may be involved to such risky research. The Epoch Times has reached out to the USDA and BGI for comment. Zachary Stieber contributed to this report.

EXCLUSIVE: Senators Sound Alarm Over US Funding to Chinese Biotech Firm Over National Security Threats

A group of Republican senators are probing the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) over its partnership with Chinese biotech firm BGI, warning that the collaboration could give China a competitive edge while putting U.S. security in danger.

The Chinese genomics giant, which has been blacklisted by both the Defense and Commerce Departments, has been working with the USDA since as early as 2018 on the Earth BioGenome Project, which aims to sequence the genomes of over 1.5 million species over a 10-year span to catalog the earth’s biodiversity.

Following the partnership’s announcement, the USDA’s Agricultural Research Service awarded $1 million to BGI. The Chinese firm and the state-funded China National GeneBank it runs occupy leadership roles in four of the project’s nine subcommittees, including chairmanship of the subcommittee of IT and Informatics.

The lawmakers said they are “gravely concerned” about BGI’s participation in this “massive effort to sequence all of life,” a partnership they said was uncovered while tracking U.S. government funding during a probe into COVID-19 origins.

As much as genomic modification is important to agriculture, safeguards are necessary to protect the security of U.S. genomic research data, the lawmakers wrote on July 25 in a letter to USDA Secretary Tom Vilsack.

“Our government must take extreme caution to prevent sponsoring research that gives any sensitive materials and intellectual property to the Chinese Communist Party,” Sen. Roger Marshall (R-Kan.), who leads the letter, told The Epoch Times.

“The CCP views biology as a domain of warfare which includes the study of all plant and animal living organisms,” he said, using the acronym for the Chinese Communist Party. “The USDA and all government agencies involved in cutting edge biological research must have better oversight when corresponding with CCP-sponsored organizations that are not immediately obvious.”

In the letter, co-signed by Sens. Marsha Blackburn (R-Tenn.), Marco Rubio (R-Fla.), and Susan Collins (R-Maine), the lawmakers highlighted the growing concern over China’s aggressive national strategy of military-civil fusion that mobilizes civilian sectors to enhance its military power.

Beijing, they said, has been “weaponizing biotech in preparation for strategic advantage in a new domain of biological warfare.”

Chinese scientists have engaged in controversial experiments such as creating genetically-altered babies and inserting genes from a micro-animal known as water bears into a human stem cell. Both of these cases, the lawmakers said, have exposed a lack of regard for scientific ethical boundaries in China.

Last year, the Department of Defense placed the firm on a sanction list for supporting the “modernization goals of the People’s Liberation Army,” and the Department of Commerce imposed trade restrictions on it in March. Two of its affiliates are also put on the Commerce Department’s blacklist in 2022 for their role in “conducting genetic analyses used to further the repression of Uyghurs and other Muslim minorities.”

With China’s expansive anti-espionage law barring transfer of domestic data to foreign enforcement authorities, any U.S. collaboration with BGI or other China-based entities risks denial of data access that would thwart the entire project, the lawmakers note, citing a 2020 U.S.-funded research partnership involving BGI that had to retract its published results after China made changes to data-sharing regulations.

“Following the COVID-19 outbreak, the PRC [People’s Republic of China] blocked access to patient and virus samples that could assist in our investigation into the origins of the pandemic, despite data-sharing agreements and multiple-year collaborations between the PRC and U.S. public health agencies and universities,” the letter states. “Even if USDA stopped paying BGI directly, through partnering with BGI and sharing U.S. intellectual property, the collaboration could endanger our security by giving China a strategic competitive edge to hold and store data that U.S. scientists have worked hard to develop.”

The senators wanted to know the status USDA’s data sharing agreement with BGI, whether—and to what extent—the Chinese firm has access to USDA research databases, the USDA’s role in the Earth Biogenome Project and the handling of the research data, as well as the department’s contingency plans if they lose access to data at the hands of Chinese entities.

They also ask whether the USDA will bar funding to research that involves dangerous pathogens as required by an omnibus spending bill passed in December, and whether the department has funded the project’s over 50 affiliates that may be involved to such risky research.

The Epoch Times has reached out to the USDA and BGI for comment.

Zachary Stieber contributed to this report.