Discover more from The DisInformation Chronicle
U.S. Virologists Collaborate with Chinese Research Group Identified as National Security Risk
Senators demand Department of Agriculture turn over records documenting ties to Chinese BGI Group, EcoHealth Alliance, and the Earth Biogenome Project.
7 minute read
In a filing placed in the federal register last March, the Department of Commerce added two subsidiaries of the Chinese biotech company behind the Earth Biogenome Project to its list of entities that pose risks to national security or foreign policy, placing trade restrictions on China’s BGI Group and its many aliases. Putting a company on Commerce’s “entity list” is short of a full ban, but serves as a federal recommendation that U.S. organizations proceed with caution when dealing with such businesses.
Founded in 1999, BGI Group is the world’s largest genetic-research company, however, BGI has long been dogged by allegations of spying on Western companies and serving as a corporate front for the People’s Liberation Army (PLA).
“Among our concerns is the PRC [People’s Republic of China] government collaboration with several of these firms for state surveillance, societal control, and military research in China,” a U.S. intelligence official told the Financial Times regarding BGI Group, in April. A Reuters investigation in 2021 found that the company collaborated with the People’s Liberation Army on prenatal tests sent worldwide to gather and analyze, the genetic data of pregnant women.
A Wall Street Journal investigation found that BGI Group used the COVID pandemic to gain entry to U.S markets, selling products and equipment at low or no cost, as a ploy to gather genetic material. “BGI has undoubtedly taken advantage of the Covid-19 pandemic to expand its reach around the world, including the United States,” Bill Evanina, director of the U.S. government’s National Counterintelligence and Security Center, told the Journal. In one example, BGI offered free Covid-19 testing to a U.S. Embassy in the Middle East but were refused.
One of BGI’s most ambitious projects is the Earth Biogenome Project, an effort involving American research institutes to sequence and catalogue a majority of the planet’s species.
Weeks before the Department of Commerce warned this March of trade restrictions, the Earth Biogenome Project disappeared their webpage listing their institutional members including BGI Group, Baylor College of Medicine, Duke University, Dalhousie University, and the British Columbia Cancer Research Center.
An archived version of the Earth Biogenome Project’s website lists academic representatives Erich Jarvis of Rockefeller Institute, Warren Johnson and Johnathan Coddington of Smithsonian Institution, Pamela Soltis of University of Florida, Anne Yoder of Duke University, Scott Edwards of Harvard, Harris Lewin of UC Davis, and Jonna Mazet of the Global Virome Project and UC Davis.
As previously reported, U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) official Dennis Carroll started the Global Virome Project sometime around 2019 with funds he illegally diverted from a USAID project called PREDICT. After retiring, Carroll then joined the Global Virome Project’s board along with Jonna Mazet of UC Davis, Peter Dazak of the nonprofit EcoHealth Allliance, and Jennifer Gardy of the Gates Foundation.
CBS News reported last March that USAID’s Inspector General opened a criminal investigation into EcoHealth Alliance’s billing practices and the misappropriation of federal funds to start the Global Virome Project.
The March federal filing by the Department of Commerce is the second time BGI companies have been added to U.S. export blacklist. In July 2020, Commerce banned exports by two different BGI companies—Xinjiang Silk Road BGI and Beijing Liuhe BGI—for efforts to document the genetic material of ethnic minorities in Xinjiang.
In the most recent update to the entity list, Commerce added BGI Research and BGI Tech Solutions, as well as their various aliases.
The addition of these entities is based upon information that indicates their collection and analysis of genetic data poses a significant risk of contributing to monitoring and surveillance by the government of China, which has been utilized in the repression of ethnic minorities in China. Information also indicates that the actions of these entities concerning the collection and analysis of genetic data present a significant risk of diversion to China's military programs.
BGI’s extensive ties to the People’s Liberation Army have been documented in multiple media outlets including Defense One, which notes that BGI is Beijing’s national champion in their biodefense strategy that fuses military and civilian research:
BGI has established an edge in cheap gene sequencing, concentrating on amassing massive amounts of data from a diverse array of sources. The company has a global presence, including laboratories in California and Australia.
U.S. policymakers have been concerned, if not troubled, by the company’s access to the genetic information of Americans. BGI has been pursuing a range of partnerships, including with the University of California and with the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia on human genome sequencing. BGI’s research and partnerships in Xinjiang also raise questions about its linkage to human rights abuses, including the forced collection of genetic information from Uighurs in Xinjiang.
There also appear to be links between BGI’s research and military research activities, particularly with the PLA’s National University of Defense Technology. BGI’s bioinformatics research has used Tianhe supercomputers to process genetic information for biomedical applications, while BGI and NUDT researchers have collaborated on several publications, including the design of tools for the use of CRISPR.
BGI Group organized the Earth BioGenome Project (EBP) in collaboration with the Smithsonian Institution in 2017. At the time, Commerce had yet to place the company on the entity list. The EBP officially launched in 2018 and began operating from UC Davis, led by Harris Lewin. That following year, EBP began collaborating with the Global Virome Project, which apparently also operates out of UC Davis
USAID’s Inspector General launched a criminal investigation into the Global Virome Project, following a March CBS News investigation, which reported on billing irregularities by EcoHealth Alliance, a nonprofit operated by Peter Daszak. Along with Jonna Mazet at UC Davis, Daszak serves on the board of the Global Virome Project.
As reported here, the Global Virome Project began when USAID’s Dennis Carroll illegally diverted hundreds of thousands of dollars in USAID funds. “It would appear that Dennis Carrol violated federal law that prohibits the use of official resources for private gain or for that of persons or organizations with which he is associated personally,” Craig Holman of Public Citizen told me when shown emails documenting this misdirection of federal monies.
Referencing USAID financial records on file, several Senators sent a letter to the Department of Agriculture demanding documents on EcoHealth Alliance and the Global Virome Project, noting that two Department of Agriculture employees serve as editors of a journal headed by EcoHealth Alliance’s Peter Daszak, who is now under criminal investigation. “The trio of Dennis Carroll, Jonna Mazet and Peter Daszak used over $1.3 million of the PREDICT grant [emphasis added] during PREDICT’s final years to travel globally and solicit financial and advocacy support for the Global Virome Project (GVP), a private organization under their control they created to continue the PREDICT research.”
Referencing BGI’s ties to China’s military, Senators also asked the Department of Agriculture to explain over $1 million awarded to BGI in recent years. The Senators note in their letter that, following the COVID pandemic outbreak, China blocked access to patient and virus samples that could have uncovered the origins of the pandemic. The Department of Defense identified China’s government in their report to Congress last year as “the most consequential and systemic challenge to U.S. national security and a free and open international system.”
The DisInformation Chronicle is a community-supported publication. To receive new posts and support this work, consider becoming a free or paid subscriber.