Subscriber OnlyTechnology

Is Ireland a sleepy back door providing China with access to global DNA banks?

US intelligence agencies raise flags over WuXi and its links with Chinese government and national security

The Chinese-owned former parent company of Genuity Science Ireland, WuXi, is the focus of significant security concerns in the US, according to the New York Times.

Genuity is the Irish-State backed genomics firm that, in its previous iteration as Genomic Medicines Ireland (GMI), obtained DNA samples from tens of thousands of Irish people as it sought to genetically profile a 10th of the population.

The New York Times this week highlighted the US’s dependency on Genuity’s former parent WuXi AppTec (the company has rebranded and restructured several times) and its affiliated company WuXi Biologics, for the development of up to a quarter of the medicines used in the US. It also indicated that WuXi was among “several companies that lawmakers have identified as potential threats to the security of individual Americans’ genetic information and US intellectual property”.

The piece revives unanswered questions about WuXi’s operations in Ireland, the future of genomic research here and the concern that Ireland naively and unwittingly provides a sleepy back door for international companies considered possible security threats.

Many of the operational approaches of Chinese companies, including WuXi, to gain access to DNA data in the US were duplicated in Ireland, such as partnerships with medical centres and universities that provided tens of thousands of Irish DNA samples to GMI/Genuity, and the creation of a WuXi Covid-19 test lab here.

“According to the US-China Economic and Security Review Commission, these Covid-19 labs have been providing Chinese researchers with access to healthcare data from around the globe,” according to a 2021 report by the US National Counterintelligence and Security Center.

WuXi’s initial stated intent in buying GMI was to DNA profile a 10th of the Irish population. It said this would help uncover new medical treatments. A national population can be genetically profiled on the basis of the DNA of just 2 per cent.

Because a large portion of the US and British population has Irish ancestry, Irish DNA could also help profile those populations.

Irish privacy and genomics experts criticised the plan at the time on the grounds that it posed data security risks and handed over and commercialised a national genetic data bank and genomics project to a privately held Chinese parent company with little global accountability. Ireland had no legal or ethical framework for managing genetic data at the time. It continues to have underdeveloped policy in the area and lacks a fully formed national genome project.

WuXi eventually spun out a separate, US-managed company to respond to increasing concerns about Chinese data access. But critics, including US lawmakers and security agencies, have warned that complex company structures can hide activities.

The New York Times writes: “For the last several years, US intelligence agencies have been warning about Chinese biotech companies in general and WuXi in particular. The National Counterintelligence and Security Center (NCSC), the arm of the intelligence community charged with warning companies about national security issues, raised alarms about WuXi’s acquisition of NextCODE, an American genomic data company.

“Though WuXi later spun off that company, a US official said the government remains sceptical of WuXi’s corporate structure, noting that some independent entities have overlapping management and that there were other signs of the Chinese government’s continuing control or influence over WuXi.”

According to the NCSC, “Chinese companies are compelled to share data they have collected with the [Chinese] government” and are unable to opt out of this requirement.

GMI operated here for several years under direct WuXi ownership before the US-managed company was spun out and became GMI/Genuity’s parent.

WuXi retains a strong Irish presence. WuXi Biologics operates a large pharma manufacturing facility in Dundalk, the IDA-backed and -supported construction of which was announced in late 2018 by former taoiseach Leo Varadkar at the time of the acquisition of GMI by WuXi.

GMI subsequently became Genuity and, in 2021, the struggling business was acquired by US company HiberCell.

Irish taxpayer money remains invested in Genuity, at a loss. The Irish Strategic Investment Fund (ISIF) initially placed €5 million in GMI. It followed that up with an enormous €66 million investment when GMI was sold to WuXi, despite GMI’s mediocre performance and the riskiness of the genomics sector.

When HiberCell bought Genuity, ISIF defended its faltering investment in a statement that, in part, dismissively blamed US-Chinese “trade tensions” for Genuity’s problems. This showed unacceptable disinterest in or ignorance of security and ethical concerns over Chinese access to global DNA banks, and the use of DNA profiling against its minority Uyghur population.

That same year, the New York Times said US security officials saw China’s “intersection of technology and genetic and biological research as an area of competition and espionage”.

Now part of HiberCell, Genuity Sciences continues to operate in Ireland, recently reporting a €23 million loss. Its future uncertain if the company collapses or is again sold, it also retains its collection of Irish DNA.

Many questions still demand answers. As for lessons learned: the State and its look-the-other-way agencies must wake up and bring global awareness and sharper scrutiny to business and investment deals. They need to have greater regard for Irish health and genomic data security. Establishing a proper, secure national genome project would initiate some public redress.

Read More

Recommended