Despite warnings that Beijing is given access to highly prized personal data, Middle East governments commend China as a ‘role model’ in the fight against COVID-19
By Sylvia Westall and Ivan Levingston / Bloomberg
While the US struggled to come up with enough tests to manage the world’s largest COVID-19 outbreak, a Chinese genetics company took less than a month to build testing centers thousands of kilometers away in the Middle East.
By moving swiftly, Shenzhen-based BGI Group won hundreds of millions of US dollars in contracts with traditional US allies including Israel, the United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia.
Now the US is warning those countries that they might be giving Beijing access to highly prized personal data that is to propel economies of the future.
The push against adoption of Chinese testing technology is part of a wider row between the US and China which has complicated global efforts to mount a response to the pandemic.
US President Donald Trump accuses China of hiding information about the origins of the outbreak and has withheld funding from the WHO, saying it is overly influenced by Beijing.
China says the White House is trying to divert attention from its own failings as deaths in the US soar.
A US official described BGI as the “Huawei of genomics,” a reference to the Chinese telecommunications company that the US has been seeking to block from digital network deals due to information-security concerns.
Washington has raised its concerns about BGI with Mideastern partners, the official said on condition of anonymity, warning them that Beijing could glean information of intelligence value and share it with their adversaries like Iran, one of China’s top trading partners in the region.
That argument does not seem to be holding much sway over US allies, as China turns its experience in managing the crisis into a global opportunity.
The US, with a virus death toll nearly triple any other country’s, has neither been able to offer much of an alternative.
“China has seized the moment. This is happening while the US just seems completely overburdened,” Abu Dhabi’s Zayed University assistant professor Jonathan Fulton said.
Beijing dismissed criticism from Washington.
“What the US side has claimed is a purely groundless accusation, a thief calling the other a thief. In fact the US government has long been stealing the private information of its own people and foreigners,” the Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs said in a statement.
Referring to a policy document published by Chinese authorities prohibiting the use of personal data collected for epidemic control for other purposes, the ministry said, it urges “the US side to stop its groundless crackdown on Chinese companies and provide an equitable, fair and non-discriminatory environment.”
BGI was founded in 1999 as the Beijing Genomics Institute, a state-backed laboratory dedicated to assisting the Human Genome Project, a global effort to assemble the first-ever comprehensive picture of human DNA.
In 2007, the company’s founders broke away from the Chinese Academy of Sciences, the state-controlled umbrella for high-level research, to transform it into a private company focused on genetic sequencing.
It went on to build China’s national gene bank.
BGI has never made a detailed disclosure of the wider group’s ownership, even though one unit — BGI Genomics Co — is listed on the Chinese stock exchange and reported US$405 million in revenue last year.
When asked about allegations surrounding its testing partnerships in the Middle East, BGI said by e-mail that it is neither owned nor controlled by the Chinese government.
In February the group set up an emergency lab in Wuhan, the epicenter of the pandemic.
“For the newly built COVID-19 labs, BGI’s customers, not BGI, will manage patient samples and access patient data,” BGI Group vice president and chief development officer of BGI Genomics Li Ning (李寧) said.
“The labs are operated by the local health authorities or institutions, not by BGI. BGI provides technology transfer. The equipment has no ability to collect personal data,” Li added.
As the virus swept across the Middle East, the company helped set up the largest COVID-19 detection laboratory outside China in collaboration with G42, an Emirati artificial intelligence and cloud-computing company.
Built within 14 days in March, the Abu Dhabi-based center can perform tens of thousands of tests a day and uses Chinese-manufactured robots to prepare samples.
G42 said that the lab could be expanded to test samples from neighboring regions and the partnership has supplied Afghanistan with a first batch of detection kits.
The lab is also to monitor virus mutations and detect future pathogens with DNA sequencing, suggesting a long-term partnership.
BGI would not have “access to the laboratory data,” G42 said in an e-mailed statement.
“Strict protocols are in place to protect the information security and data privacy against any unauthorized access, both external and internal,” G42 said.
BGI has so far assisted 80 nations with testing and is in talks to help construct laboratories in more than 10 countries, the Chinese group said.
Its nucleic acid test for the virus has been used in excess of 20 million times and has regulatory approvals in Europe, the US, Japan, Australia and elsewhere, BGI said.
US Assistant Secretary of State for Near Eastern Affairs David Schenker said China is using “face-mask diplomacy” to distract from its lack of transparency over the origins of COVID-19.
Declining to comment on specific companies, Schenker said that data passing through Chinese entities could be “compromised” and echoed the comparison with Huawei.
“There are states in the region that understand this. We are a partner that has provided billions of dollars over the years in investment in the health sector, humanitarian aid in the region, and we’re not leaving,” Schenker said by telephone.
The Chinese foreign ministry did not immediately respond to a request for comment about the allegations surrounding BGI.
AID Genomics, an Israeli medical technology firm, unveiled a tie-up with BGI a week after the Chinese group started conducting COVID-19 tests in Abu Dhabi.
The venture aimed to set up a lab in the Gaza Strip capable of 3,000 tests per day with the backing of Israeli and Palestinian authorities, the companies said.
Separately, the Israeli government said BGI would help it carry out 20,000 tests per day.
The government said it gave serious consideration to information security in the partnership.
BGI would not have access to results or raw data, an Israeli Ministry of Health official said. Clalit, a Tel Aviv-based health services provider, declined to comment on a local media report on its cooperation with BGI and concerns about access to sensitive data.
In Riyadh, a phone call between Saudi King Salman and Chinese President Xi Jinping (習近平) led to a US$265 million deal with BGI to supply the kingdom with nine million testing kits, 500 staff and six laboratories capable of handling 50,000 samples a day.
BGI said it was also planning an additional lab which would allow 30 percent of the kingdom’s population to be tested in the next eight months as needed.
The partnership “confirms the strength of long-standing Saudi-Chinese ties,” royal court adviser Abdullah al-Rabeeah said in a statement when the deal was signed.
Emirati Minister of Foreign Affairs Sheikh Abdullah bin Zayed Al Nahyan commended China as a “role model” in the fight against the virus.
It set “the best example for how these trying times will pass by through collaboration and solidarity,” the minister said after a call with his Chinese counterpart last month.
In a virtual panel, an Emirati official and an influential Saudi prince called on the US and China to put aside their differences in order to fight the virus.
Asked to comment on US concerns about BGI, the Emirati foreign minister said he welcomes collaboration “with the best companies around the world, especially in light of the current crisis, which requires cooperation across countries and sectors.”
With attacks on China becoming a centerpiece of Trump’s re-election strategy, the Chinese inroads are not going unanswered.
Last week, US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo broke his virus seclusion with a trip abroad to Israel — in part to deliver a warning against deepening ties with Beijing.
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