The BioSecure Act "Anti-BGI" Bill
There’s a bill that’s been proposed to the US house of representatives. It is largely aimed against the BGI (Beijing Genomics Institute)1. So I thought it might be interesting to write something up on this bill… and try and understand the motivation here.
What is the BGI?
This is a seemingly simple question to which I have no simple answer. I mean it’s a research institute right? That’s in the name? Well… kind of… but not really.
I’ve written about my confusion with the BGI before, but let’s try and summarize. The BGI was founded in 1999 with a mission to contribute 1% of the data to the human genome project.
After the completion of the human genome project the BGI relocated to Hangzhou in exchange for local government funding, and then in 2007 they announced that they were to relocate to Shenzhen to establish China’s first private non-profit research institution.
So from what I can tell they started off firmly as a non-profit research institution and remained so until at least 2008.
2010 seems to have been the turning point for the BGI. They received a 1.58B USD line of credit from the China development bank, and funds from Shenzhen Capital Group. It also looks like Taikang Life Insurance and Sequoia may be an investors2.
Then in 2013 after a long and slightly painful process they acquired US DNA sequencing startup Complete Genomics.
Originally the BGI bought DNA sequencers3 from a US company, Illumina. In fact, they were probably their largest customer. Purchasing 128 HiSeq 2000s DNA sequencers which had a list price of ~$700K in 2010.
Then in 2015 they started making their own DNA sequencers! And finally on the 14th July 2017 they were listed on the Shenzhen stock exchange completing their transition in to a somewhat surprisingly highly commercial research institution.
So… BGI started as Illumina’s biggest customer and ended as their biggest competitor! (well… kind of4)
Then they all
lived happily ever sued each other! This was more or less resolved in 2022 when they agreed not to sue each other for at least a little while.
What Is Happening With This Bill?
As far as I can tell the bill would make it very difficult to spend US public funds on BGI (and subsidiaries MGI and Complete Genomics) instruments.
As the bill says:
It is the sense of Congress that the time has come to stop United States taxpayer dollars from flowing to foreign adversary biotech companies like BGI that have ties to the PLA; and prevent United States taxpayers from buying biotech equipment from foreign adversaries that facilitate the transfer of United States persons genetic data to a foreign adversary.
In light of the BGI being a competitor to Illumina (a US company) you might be forgiven for thinking this is a protectionist measure. Well… maybe… but the thing is the BGI isn’t really much of a threat to Illumina.
While I described BGI as “their biggest competitor” above. The reality is that Illumina doesn’t actually have any very big competitors and maintains something like an 80%+ market share.
Their biggest threat isn’t really the BGI, but a new crop of smaller startups. BGI machines have been around for years and don’t seem to have gained much adoption. In part, because they don’t seem to be massively cheaper than Illumina instruments…
I’ve seen news of the bill quoted along side think-tank reports on genetic weaponry discussing China’s exposure in US Genetic testing:
The report goes on to describe how they believe that China is nominally engaged in”biological activities with potential dual-use applications”. And cite a number of sources where PLA officers have “suggested that China should consider biological weapons” e.g.
As noted previously, in 2015 a PLA Daily article co-authored by then-president of the PLA’s Academy of Military Medical Sciences He Fuchu (now AMS Vice President overseeing implementation the PLA’s civil-military fusion strategy) entitled “Biotechnology will become a new strategic commanding point for the future military revolution” argued that “the weaponization of biological bodies will become a reality in the future, non-traditional combat styles will take the stage, ‘biological frontier’ will become a new high frontier of national defense.
The report is interesting, and suggests that the “ethnic diversity of the US population provides a protective effect that largely undermines the potential strategic payoff of a genetic weapon system”.
But overall, it didn’t seem like this report was making a very strong case for blocking Chinese access to US genomic data.
The bill itself seems more focused on surveillance applications citing a National Counterintelligence and Security Center advisory from 2021. This report discuss China’s use of genetic surveillance domestically. And suggest that the PRC could use this information for surveillance, manipulation, or extortion:
For instance, vulnerabilities in specific individuals revealed by genomic data or health records could be used to help target these individuals. Data associated with an embarrassing addiction or mental illness could be leveraged for blackmail. Combine this information with stolen credit data indicating bankruptcy or major debt and the tools for exerting leverage increase. Such data sets could help the PRC not only recruit individuals abroad, but also act against foreign dissidents.
The advisory is from early 2021 (the middle of the pandemic) and mostly seems to focus on issues around COVID-19 test kits. So it seems a bit weird that it’s resurfacing now.
But it makes a bit more sense to me than the genetic weaponry angle.
I’ll likely never understand the political motivations behind this bill. And I don’t have much insight into whether it’s likely to pass or not…
However, even if it does I’m not sure how much of a difference to the market it will make. The one US customer I’m aware of (Nebula Genomics) is a commercial service, so wouldn’t be covered by restricting use of public funds.
And I don’t get the impression much public research5 uses BGI instruments anyway…
More significant is the chilling effect this will likely have on the purchase of Chinese DNA sequencing instrumentation and tests in general. And the bill simply being proposed is probably enough to discourage many users already.
They also mention WuXi AppTec, but it seem clearly focused on the BGI.
At least that’s what the Sequoia page when I last checked in 2018…
machines that read DNA
Ok, this isn’t exactly accurate. I assume at one point BGI was Illumina’s largest or at least nearly largest single customer (I don’t think there was any other institute with 128 instruments in this class at the time). And that MGI was at any time Illumina’s biggest competitor is debatable.
Or even Medicare funded clinical applications if that would be covered?