UK

MPs call for investigation into Chinese genetics company over pregnancy test data

Liberal Democrat MP Alistair Carmichael is among those calling for the government to investigate BGI (Aaron Chown/PA)
Liberal Democrat MP Alistair Carmichael is among those calling for the government to investigate BGI (Aaron Chown/PA) Liberal Democrat MP Alistair Carmichael is among those calling for the government to investigate BGI (Aaron Chown/PA)

A Chinese company selling pregnancy tests in the UK must be investigated over the potential risk that expectant mothers’ genetic data may be shared with the Chinese government, a cross-party group of parliamentarians have warned.

MPs and peers have called for the Information Commissioner’s Office (ICO) to launch a probe into BGI Group, China’s leading genomics company, over concerns that data gathered from its NIFTY non-invasive pre-natal tests may be shared with the government in Beijing.

The politicians have shared their concerns about the company after it was blacklisted by the US government, and following the ICO’s recent decision to fine Chinese-owned social media company TikTok over its misuse of data.

Conservative former minister Lord Bethell, Tory MP Henry Smith, Labour MPs Siobhain McDonagh, Taiwo Owatemi and Charlotte Nichols, and Lib Dem former minister Alistair Carmichael wrote to the ICO to call for the investigation.

They raised 2021 reporting by Reuters that suggested BGI was using the genetic information collected from pregnancy testing around the world to “collect genetic data from millions of women for sweeping research on the traits of populations”.

The also raised the alarm about China’s national intelligence law, which requires private companies to share information with the state if requested for security purposes.

The letter said: “It is vital consumers have full transparency in order to carefully assess the risks associated with sharing such data with state-linked Chinese companies.

“We must also ensure patients are told about the importance and far-reaching implications of their genetic information – and the risks associated with turning it over.

“Most importantly, we must ensure companies like BGI are completely transparent about their data collection and usage, and what Chinese laws they are subject to.”

According to BGI’s website, the NIFTY test is used to analyse blood samples from pregnant women to screen for genetic abnormalities, including Down’s Syndrome.

Lib Dem MP Mr Carmichael, who has previously raised concerns about the company in Parliament, described BGI as the “next Huawei”, claiming it was “a question of ‘when’ rather than ‘if’ it is banned in the UK”.

“With that in mind, the Government should simply get on with it,” he added.

He went on: “This is a company with proven links to the Chinese military, working in a field that is Beijing’s strategic priority and enables the repression of human rights.

“In March, the science minister George Freeman told Parliament that BGI is a ‘danger point’. Why then is BGI being allowed to open a new centre in London whilst continuing to build partnerships with UK universities?

“This is a national security failing of the highest order. The Government must act.”

BGI Group has previously stated that it is not “state-linked” or controlled, and stores its test data in its own labs, separate from China’s national gene bank.