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Controversial Chinese Company BGI Genomics Found to have Worked with at Least 16 UK Universities

The genome sequencing company also administers China’s National Gene Bank, which is part of the state surveillance of minorities that facilitates the mass detention of Uyghurs

Photo: Timon Schneider/Alamy

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At least 16 academic institutions in the UK have done joint work with Chinese genomics company BGI Genomics or its subsidiaries, an investigation by Byline Times can reveal.

Chinese genome sequencing company was founded in 1999 and has since grown into a global business, collaborating on research projects around the world with academic and medical institutions. It also administers China’s National Gene Bank, which is part of the state surveillance of minorities that facilitates the mass detention of Uyghurs.

The Evening Standard has previously reported that the BGI Group, which runs the state-owned national gene bank, is “believed to have significant and long-standing ties to the Chinese Communist Party and the country’s military.” The report also notes that “two BGI Group subsidiaries [have been] blacklisted by the US Department of Commerce for their involvement in unethical surveillance of ethnic minorities in China.”

BGI made headlines in 2021 when a report from Reuters revealed that their neonatal genetic testing kit was harvesting the genetic data of millions of women around the world. Additionally, in March 2023, Conservative MP George Freeman said that the company had repeatedly attempted to hack into Genomics England to gain access to the NHS genetic database of UK citizens. 

Despite the Reuters report in July 2021, BGI Genomics was awarded a £10.8 million contract to undertake genomic testing of Covid samples in August 2021. BGI was also listed as an approved supplier on three framework agreements with Public Health England.

This weekend, a group of human rights activists, doctors, scientists and lawyers has written to the Secretary of State for Education, Gillian Keegan, asking the government to establish an inquiry into the extent of academic partnerships with BGI in the UK. 

In response to Freedom of Information requests (FOIs) sent to 53 UK universities, Byline Times found that at least 16 academic institutions have worked with BGI. 

The University of Cambridge initially stated that they had “two research collaboration agreements (both in medical/biosciences) with start dates of March and April 2023 respectively” with BGI Genomics. The university then clarified, saying “upon further investigation, it appears that our original response to your request was inaccurate, for which we apologise. There are no current agreements with BGI: the two collaboration agreements previously referred to have not in fact been undertaken.”

Asked why these research projects had not gone ahead, the university said “we can confirm that the agreements remain under review from an ethics perspective.”

The University of Oxford has been reported to have undertaken joint research projects with BGI. They told Byline Times that “There are no current agreements with BGI Genomics but six completed ones”. These projects were on subjects like Salmonella, spatial transcriptomics, and “improving understanding of human origin and evolution and of genetic contributions to human disease, and contributing to precision medicine for Chinese populations.”

As a result of the Covid-19 pandemic, the Wellcome Centre for Human Genetics (WHG) at Oxford “established a major collaboration with the Chinese sequencing company, BGI” according to Oxford’s research website

The Evening Standard has reported that Exeter University “has a running contract with a BGI subsidiary involving data sharing”. In response to our FoI request, Exeter clarified that “The University of Exeter has previously had one contract with BGI Genomics for ‘The provision of a human whole genome sequencing service’ – whereby, anonymised data samples were issued to the supplier for sequencing services. This contract was awarded 16 February 2018 and expired on 15 February 2022. While this contract is not ongoing, some low-value, ad-hoc orders have been placed with BGI up-to Dec 2022 in order to complete research associated with the original contract.” 

The University of Bath told Byline Times that “The University’s Research Innovation Services also holds information on a research project which is supported by BGI Schenzhen. Current PhD research about sequencing which is focused on ecological and evolutionary questions and analysis of the genomes of Arctic shorebirds has all sequencing and bioinformatics expenses paid for by BGI Schenzhen in regard to this project.”


Chinese University Associated with Uyghur Repression Signs Partnership with Exeter

Academics at Tsinghua University in Beijing have been accused of fuelling China’s persecution of Uyghur Muslims by laying the intellectual foundations of the minority’s abuse

The University of Brighton told Byline Times that they “had one contract with BGI Genomics. The contract period is 5.11.19 to 30.11.23. The contract was for equipment hire, training and consumables.” This contract is therefore ongoing, and would likely bring BGI in to work with the Brighton Integrative Genomics (BIG) Unit. Byline 

The University of Cardiff revealed five contracts with BGI or its subsidiaries for projects to develop therapies for Rheumatoid Arthritis, sequencing of wildlife for conservation, and general genome sequencing, while the Liverpool School of Tropical Medicine had one contract for cell sequencing with BGI Genomics in 2018.

King’s College London told Byline Times: “Our Research Management and Innovation Directorate have on record two studies in which an SLA was set up with a BGI subsidiary however, on both occasions no work was outsourced to BGI and the partnerships were not activated. For clarity, no income was received, no samples have been sent for analysis, no access to UK Biobank was involved and no transfers to China.” King’s College refused to provide further details of the agreements, citing commercial confidentiality. 

Byline Times also found joint research projects between BGI and the University of Liverpool, University of Manchester, University of Westminster, Bangor and the University of Birmingham, who set up a joint research centre with BGI on their campus in 2014. An investigation by the Daily Mail found that Edinburgh and Imperial College London had also collaborated with BGI. Liverpool, Imperial and Edinburgh all denied they had worked with BGI in response to our FoI requests.

The University of Southampton refused to fulfil the FoI request sent to them, saying that they do hold information relevant to the inquiry – suggesting they have done work with BGI – but refused to publish details citing commercial confidentiality. Byline has found evidence of research projects between Southampton’s Faculty of Medicine and BGI.

The UK government are increasingly concerned with China’s attempts to gain access to Intellectual Property (IP) held in the UK, with Parliament’s Intelligence and Security Committee (ISC) recently publishing a report saying China had managed to “successfully penetrate every sector of the UK’s economy”, and the UK was of “significant interest to China when it comes to espionage and interference”.

Reuters’ 2021 investigation into BGI said that “U.S. government advisors warned in March that a vast bank of genomic data that the company, BGI Group, is amassing and analyzing with artificial intelligence could give China a path to economic and military advantage. As science pinpoints new links between genes and human traits, access to the biggest, most diverse set of human genomes is a strategic edge.”

BGI Genomics’ main address in the UK is on the technology campus of Queen Mary University of London (QMUL), where the London Genome Centre is based. One of the Genome Centre’s staff is listed by the centre’s website as having “previously worked with the BGI in their COVID testing facility”, while LinkedIn suggests that they continue to work for BGI Genomics as a lab technician.


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QMUL’s press office told Byline Times that “I can confirm that they rent commercial space as you have noted but nothing beyond that. I.e. no funded or collaborative research projects.” The university and BGI have however held at least one joint networking event together, and have also been research partners on a genomic study on arthritis from 2014-20. 

Since huge cuts to university funding from 2011 onwards, British universities have come to rely on money from research collaborations and foreign students, particularly from India and China, who pay higher fees than domestic students. It is these cuts, and the marketisation of higher education that has followed, which has made Britain vulnerable to economic attacks, and dependent on foreign money.

There are clearly questions for the government and academic institutions to answer about whether companies like BGI are being used by the Chinese state to gain access to and steal valuable genomic data, such as that held by Genomics England. The wider issue is that in its drive to impose a market ideology on every area of the economy, the Conservative Party has made Britain vulnerable to economic exploitation and undermined national security.

BGI Genomics was offered a right of reply by Byline Times’ but did not respond by the time of publication.

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