Thermo Fisher and American genetics expert awaken to misuse of DNA technology by China

By Chris Burt

Yale University geneticist Dr. Kenneth Kidd, who along with Thermo Fisher Scientific provided China’s government with the materials it needed to carry out a mass DNA registration program in the country’s restive province of Xinjiang, says he believed Chinese scientists were operating according to scientific norms and gaining informed consent to collect DNA, The New York Times reports.

Thermo Fisher has now said it will no longer sell its DNA-processing equipment in Xinjiang, and that it is working with U.S. officials to determine how its technology was used. Thermo Fisher employs nearly 5,000 people in China, and sales in the country accounted for 10 percent of its $20.9 billion in 2017 revenue, according to its annual report.

University of Windsor assistant professor Mark Munsterhjelm says scientific community cooperation “legitimizes this type of genetic surveillance.”

Authorities in Xinjiang have said the DNA equipment was purchased for internal use, but numerous reports indicate that it was used as part of a “physicals for all” program which collected biometric data from 36 million people, according to official state news agency Xinhua. Xinjiang’s population is estimated at 24.5 million.

Senator Marco Rubio expressed concern with the program a year ago, and asked Thermo Fisher to explain its role. The Times reports the company has sponsored genomics conferences in China, sold equipment to national and Xinjiang government agencies, and its technology has been lauded as having no domestic substitutes by Chinese officials.

Now the company has halted sales in Xinjiang, and says it recognizes the importance of considering how its products may be used.

“It’s an important step, and one hopes that they apply the language in their own statement to commercial activity across China, and that other companies are assessing their sales and operations, especially in Xinjiang,” said Human Rights Watch China director Sophie Richardson.

Dr. Kidd helped make DNA evidence more acceptable in U.S. courts, according to the Times, and was subsequently invited to Beijing by China’s Ministry of Public Security in 2010. A Chinese official was placed with Dr. Kidd’s lab for nearly all of 2015, and returned to China with DNA samples from the lab. Kidd says he thought the samples were being shared for collaborative research.

Chinese ministry research publications and patent applications make clear that the data was used, at least in part, to further research into identifying the ethnicity of people from DNA samples, and to infer the geographic origin of criminal suspects from latent DNA evidence. Chinese government researchers also contributed to DNA data from over 2,000 Uighurs to the Allele Frequency Database platform run by Dr. Kidd.

Article Topics

best practices  |  biometrics  |  China  |  data collection  |  dna  |  surveillance  |  United States