By Alistair Smout
LONDON (Reuters) -Britain should be concerned about the harvesting of genetic data from millions of women by a Chinese company through prenatal tests, a senior British lawmaker told Reuters.
A Reuters review of scientific papers and company statements found that BGI Group developed the tests https://www.reuters.com/investigates/special-report/health-china-bgi-dna in collaboration with the Chinese military and is using them to collect genetic data around the world for research on the traits of populations.
"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."
BGI says it has never shared data for national security purposes and has never been asked to.
The company said that it fully complied with European GDPR data protection rules and also had 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, adding that it took data protection, privacy and ethics extremely seriously.
Reuters found that BGI has published at least a dozen joint studies on the tests with the People's Liberation Army (PLA) since 2010, trialling and improving the tests or analyzing the data they provided.
DNA data collected from prenatal tests on women outside China has also been stored in China's government-funded gene database, one of the world's largest, BGI previously confirmed. Online records reviewed by Reuters show that the genetic data of at least 500 women who have taken the NIFTY test, including some outside China, are stored in the China National GeneBank.
Tugendhat is one of nine British lawmakers who has been sanctioned by China for highlighting alleged human rights abuses in Xinjiang, which Beijing describes as "lies and disinformation".
He said that any British companies using the tests should be clear where the data is going, who holds it, and what 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.
Britain's health ministry said that companies operating in the United Kingdom must follow strict data protection laws, but declined to directly comment on BGI's tests and Tugendhat's concerns.
(Reporting by Alistair Smout in London, additional reporting by Kirsty Needham in Sydney and Clare Baldwin in Hong Kong; Editing by Kate Holton and Pravin Char)