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The Folly of ‘America First’ in the Race for Biodata Amid a Pandemic

Nicolas Aasfouri/AFP via Getty Images)
A coronavirus research technician at the Sinovac Biotech laboratory, Beijing, China, April 29, 2020

America’s response to the coronavirus pandemic has exposed a shocking lack of preparedness for public health emergencies. But it has also revealed what must be, for the aspiring strongman in the White House and his coterie, a more embarrassing fact: if America were to move in an authoritarian direction, it would be shedding international allies in order to enter into a competition with nationalistic authoritarian states that it probably can’t win.

The strengths that the US has built over the seventy-five years since World War II lie elsewhere—and they are ones that the Trump administration clearly doesn’t recognize. If the White House had chosen the standard liberal-democratic approach to a pandemic for which we were once well prepared, it would have prioritized public health goals: minimizing suffering and reducing mortality rates, and thereby also mitigating the damage to social, economic, and political institutions. That approach would have meant global cooperation, scientific collaboration, and humanitarian aid to poorer countries to help halt the spread of the virus.

But this administration did not choose that path. The president is a fan neither of science, nor of the “administrative state.” His administration is instead committed to “America First” politics.

Despite some presidential bluster about “total” authority, however, the Trump administration hasn’t succeeded in employing an effective authoritarian approach either. It isn’t capable of rivaling contemporary “Nation First” autocratic states like China. They take a chauvinist approach to public health emergencies, viewing them primarily in terms of national security, and not by any measure of international humanitarian values. A pandemic is a geopolitical contest to win or lose—and on their own terms, states like China and Russia are outstripping the US in the areas of national security that pertain to this coronavirus outbreak.

In a pandemic, biodata is an essential asset for the purposes of epidemiology, as well as the developments of vaccines and treatments. But for authoritarian states like China and Russia, the accuracy of epidemiological assessments has a special significance. It’s essential to shaping a strategic political response to the crisis. They want to know not just how many will die or be incapacitated, but also who will and where, as this will affect the global balance of power—which they want to tilt in their favor. The gold standard for this kind of predictive biodata is the DNA information of affected populations.

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There are various ways in which China and Russian can, and do, harvest the DNA data of foreign nations. They already have a great deal of ours because, by and large, we don’t think twice about giving it away. A friend recently took a genetic test from 23andMe to find out his “ancestry” and discovered that he’s 99.9 percent “European.” Though a category that seems open to interpretation, it is apparently the kind of information millions of people like to have: 23andMe has 12 million customers around the world and has collected a claimed three billion genetic datapoints (specific genetic markers within an individual’s DNA). While the company started out with US government seed money from the NIH, subsequent rounds of funding have come from Chinese biotech giant WuXi Healthcare Ventures, Patrick Cheung of Zhong Wei Capital, and the Russian tech investor Yuri Milner.

It was once assumed that an overseas investor with a non-controlling stake in a company wasn’t a worry, that this level of investment wouldn’t necessarily entail access to sensitive data or intellectual property. These matters are overseen by the Committee on Foreign Investment in the United States (CFIUS), and the Foreign Investment Risk Review Modernization Act of 2018 (FIRRMA) expanded their jurisdiction in light of concerns about investment structures that hadn’t previously been considered national security concerns. Non-controlling, as well as controlling, investments now receive scrutiny. There are, in fact, ways minority investors can access the most secret data and intellectual property, and get inside the company’s “black box,” as it is known.

One means of acquiring such data is for minority stakeholders to encourage partnerships with companies they own. 23andMe is just one among a slew of genetic testing companies now at the heart of a lifestyle trend: people can submit their DNA information in exchange for recommendations of dubious products like DNA-based diets and DNA-based dating. DNAfit (a subsidiary of Chinese company Prenetics) proposes fitness programs based on biodata willingly supplied by customers. A lawyer who is involved with some of these Chinese venture capital initiatives in the US told me that there are even easier ways of gaining privileges with a company’s proprietary black box, since promises of “access to the China market” invariably seduce American CEOs and give Chinese investors leverage.

David Dee Delgado/Getty Images
Secretary of State Mike Pompeo (right) meeting with UN Secretary-General António Guterres (left), after Pompeo earlier complained of difficulties obtaining datasets on Covid-19 from the Chinese government, New York City, March 6, 2020

This doesn’t mean, of course, that every investment by a Chinese entity is part of a plot to steal our data or intellectual property. WuXi Healthcare Ventures and Zhong Wei Capital may have invested in 23andMe simply because it was a good financial bet. But the Chinese Communist Party under Xi Jinping has increasingly put pressure on private companies to do deals that will be advantageous for national security, as well as providing financial backing for the companies that are cooperative. In the cases of Huawei and 5G the issues are well known and publicly debated, but much smaller companies can be similarly coopted (the Pentagon recently warned military personnel against using DNA testing kits). Xi has also introduced the doctrine of “civilian-military fusion” to erase barriers between civilian and military technological developments. We should therefore have a default assumption that any data and technological edge gained by private companies with state links like these are exploited for whatever defense applications they might have.

In similar fashion, Yuri Milner may have been making merely a prudent investment in 23andMe, along with other major tech investments in the US. He is not regarded as a Putin crony, but his very large investments in Facebook and Twitter rang alarm bells when, as The New York Times reported, they turned out to be backed in part by Russian state-controlled bank, VTB, as well as by Gazprom, the state-controlled gas company. Even if Milner has no malign intentions, the fact is that Kremlin could, if so disposed, arrest him and seize his assets, as it did with fellow tech investor Ziyavudin Magomedov; or less directly, the Kremlin could pressure Milner to act on its behalf if he has vulnerabilities such as family in Russia who could be threatened.

Putin certainly appears to believe that an international competition to gather and exploit DNA data is already under way. In a bizarre episode in 2017, the Kremlin accused staff of NGOs of working as foreign agents to collect the DNA of Russian citizens, including a broad range of ethnicities within Russia. Scientists quoted in the Russian media speculated that this alleged collection effort was linked to US biowarfare programs and called for “biological security” legislation to counter the threat.

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There is indeed some competition for this data among states, and it is driven is by defense purposes. This is an area in which the known facts easily mutate into conspiracy theories. In 1995, the American futurist Alvin Toffler predicted the rise of “ethnic weapons,” or pathogens developed to target specific ethnicities. This was taken seriously enough to get a mention in a Department of Defense briefing by then Secretary William Cohen. In Chinese popular culture, the idea has become a powerful science-fiction fantasy: the 2015, blockbuster Chinese movie Wolf Warrior has a plot line in which foreign mercenaries develop “genetic weapons” that will kill only Chinese people. To date, so far as we know, genetic weapons are not part of the arsenal of any country. But other military uses of our biodata do not exist only in the realm of fantasy.

The US and China are engaged in biotech work for defense purposes that is not covered by the Biological and Toxin Weapons Convention. Developments in artificial intelligence, DNA -sequencing technologies, and neuroscience have together created possibilities that don’t involve biological weapons in any previous, conventional sense: for instance, we know of Chinese research into the use of nanotechnologies to control the neural circuits of the brain. This brain-machine fusion has attracted research interest as a way of gaining an advantage on the battlefield, generating enhanced perception and AI-assisted decision-making. Gene-editing technologies have also made possible advances in bioweapons that will require signatories to revisit the BTWC.

Elsa Kania, an expert in Chinese military innovation at the Center for a New American Security, recently claimed that because China aims to have the world’s largest gene bank and views this genomic information as a strategic advantage, this has resulted in “an unwillingness to share and exchange data, even as Chinese companies are avidly seeking out access to sources of data beyond China.” China has the billions of dollars available to achieve this aim. The largest Chinese biotech companies can buy foreign companies outright and are continually doing so.

The face of scientific integrity and medical success in this pandemic has been Kári Stefánsson, the bearded, white-haired neuroscientist who founded deCODE genetics and who now appears regularly on our TV screens speaking softly in his sibilance-heavy Icelandic accent. He partnered with the Icelandic government to help test 10 percent of the population for Covid-19. By sequencing the virus wherever they’ve found it, they’ve able to keep track of its mutations; this in turn enables them to trace the virus’s spread all the way back to particular individuals. Stefánsson hopes that this will provide the rest of the world with a model for managing the spread of the disease.

His company, deCODE, began in 1996 as a tiny enterprise on his native remote, sparsely populated volcanic island. Stefánsson founded the firm with with his partner and CFO, Hannes Smárason. At the time, Iceland had a population of just 270,000 and a great deal of genealogical information, the perfect subject pool for a large-scale genomic study that could allow Stefánsson to identify sequence variants correlated with particular illnesses. This approach arguably formed a template for the entire field of genomics.

But that small volcanic island was destined to become the epicenter of a global financial crisis, and, by 2009, deCODE itself was in serious financial trouble. With Smárason’s help in securing rescue packages, it was eventually bought by Amgen in 2012. But Smárason was no naif. He had taken some time out of deCODE during Iceland’s financial boom to run an investment company called the FL Group. (The name will sound familiar to those who have read the Mueller Report: the FL Group provided financial backing for the notorious Trump Soho deal that involved the Russian mafia-linked firm Bayrock.) Fully aware of the kind of asset he controlled in deCODE, Smárason spun off a company called NextCODE Health, which owned technologies capable of analyzing deCODE’s enormous genome database. In 2015, he sold it to China’s WuXi AppTec and it became WuXi NextCODE, a leader in population gene-sequencing around the world. Smárason has since become a venture partner in 6 Dimensions Capital, one of the biggest Chinese venture capital funds investing in US biotech startups.

In 2013, the Chinese genome-sequencing company Beijing Genomics Institute (BGI) bought a California company called Complete Genomics, with approval from the CFIUS and the Federal Trade Commission. Even after the passage of FIRRMA, CFIUS focuses only on individually identifiable data (that is, information that can be traced back to specific, private individuals), though, in fact, most data can easily be deanonymized these days (using just a few other datapoints to re-identify unique individuals). According to Elsa Kania, “China could possess and achieve a data advantage in genomics and biomedical technologies, based on the sizable amounts of genomic and medical data that have been and continue to be collected.”

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The hoarding of all this sensitive data is not the only advantage held by authoritarian states. What matters to an authoritarian state in a pandemic is the stability of the regime, which is as much a psychological as a physical issue. This priority requires managing not simply the number of deaths but the perceived number of deaths, and, above all, perceptions of how adequate the regime’s response is. China has silenced journalists and whistleblowers who disputed the official government account; North Korea, while quietly requesting help from the WHO and Doctors Without Borders, claims not to have a single case of the virus; Vladimir Putin has largely maintained a silence on the topic (except for one, surprisingly frank admission that Russia is facing a serious crisis).

But Putin also knows that perceived success in managing the consequences of the virus is relative. If the US appears chaotic, with well-publicized protests over the lockdowns, failures to distribute resources effectively, and comparatively shocking death rates, that can be presented as an indictment of the American way of government and a vindication of Putin’s form of rule. Part of this response from Putin can be seen in Russia’s widely reported efforts to sow disinformation about the pandemic in the US and Europe. A leaked European Union report back in March traced to Russian sources various conspiracy theories, including claims that the virus was a Chinese bioweapon, or a US or UK one, or a means for pharmaceutical companies to enrich themselves. The overall aim of this messaging, the report concluded, was “to aggravate the public health crisis in Western countries, specifically by undermining public trust in national healthcare systems.” China has also orchestrated a disinformation campaign in the US that seems closely modeled on the Russian operation, designed to exacerbate social divisions, distrust, and panic.

Democratic states start with an intrinsic disadvantage in disinformation wars—if they participate, they risk undermining the public trust and social contracts on which their political cohesion depends. If America tried to compete with China and Russia on their own terms, right now President Trump would be severely hamstrung. For democracies, the war against disinformation can only be won defensively. Although America, too, is undoubtedly involved in some foreign propaganda operations (Trump’s own ham-fisted accusations aside), there is a tremendous asymmetry in access to the respective national social media platforms where disinformation is spread. Most Americans have been very aware since 2016 that ours are open to the world and unregulated. Penetration of China’s centrally regulated and highly censored social media, by contrast, would be extremely difficult. Russia’s regime of “digital sovereignty” is also relatively impermeable.

Gonzalo Fuentes/AFP via Getty Images
French President Emmanuel Macron speaking at an international videoconference to coordinate development of Covid-19 vaccination, which the US did not attend, Paris, May 4, 2020

A further advantage that authoritarian countries have established over the US is their ease in gaining access to treatments that can halt or alter the course of the pandemic. China has acquired a reputation for hacking and theft of intellectual property, but these days the Chinese government can garner both information and physical products through their strategic investments, taking advantage of huge amounts of research and development funding that have been employed by the US in these areas. Government agencies such as the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) and the Biomedical Advanced Research and Development Authority (BARDA) often make large investments in companies working on potential vaccines and cures, giving those firms an imprimatur that then attracts Chinese investors.

It’s not only data, intellectual property, drugs, and vaccines that the Chinese have been stockpiling. Many people were horrified to learn from a recent New York Times report that private blood banks are currently selling donated blood rich with Covid-19 antibodies for up to $50,000 a teaspoonful. Most of the blood donors are entirely unaware this is going on. One of the companies doing this, Cantor BioConnect in California, advertised “an opportunity to help in the fight against Covid-19”, saying this project was “in conjunction with multiple diagnostic companies and the White House Covid-19 Task Force,” and offered blood donors $100 for a sample. The company did not disclose who the partner companies were. This is a lucrative new market, involving an extremely data-rich product that’s invaluable in our fight against infectious diseases.

It is unsurprising, then, that the Chinese have been buying our blood banks (though perhaps it is surprising that we’ve been selling them). Bio Products Laboratory used to be an organization within the UK’s National Health Service, creating blood plasma products for therapeutic medical use. In 1998, amid concerns about vCJD, or mad cow disease, the laboratory began to source all its blood plasma in the US, eventually absorbing a US company that could fully supply its needs. In 2013, BPL was sold as a private company to Bain Capital, with the UK government retaining just a 20 percent share of ownership; in 2016, Bain sold its majority holding to the huge Chinese company, Creat Group.

The BPL Plasma website for the US currently displays an image of two hands cradling a sparkling, magical source of light alongside the words “You beat Covid-19! Let’s work together to help others win their battles.” Americans are urged to donate their plasma to something called “the CoVIg-19 Plasma Alliance” so that vital antibodies can be collected for research into a potential cure. Most donors would not participate in a research program like this only to discover that their blood will become part of a Chinese-owned blood bank, at the disposal of a state whose scientists may be committed to public health goals but whose rulers want to exploit our trust in them for national security purposes.

“Nation First” states have many covert methods for “winning” a pandemic, or making sure it tips the balance of global power in their favor. Under current circumstances, the United States would be weakened if it moved further in an authoritarian direction, rather than shoring up alliances. Democratic states, in particular, have strong incentives to cooperate with one another. As a recent RAND report emphasized, from a global public health perspective, the response to a pandemic requires collaboration between governments and openness. Thanks in part to the Trump administration’s inept imitation of autocratic regimes, the current pandemic does not seem to have brought the world closer to these goals.

Jeanne-Paloma Zelmati, a lawyer and contributor to Just Security, has warned that in the post-Covid-19 era, foreign investment regulations everywhere will be tightened, and possibilities for collaboration closed down. This is the choice before us: either a democratic model of global cooperation on many fronts, including humanitarian efforts in poor countries, to get the pandemic under control; or the authoritarian model of mutual distrust and competition between states. In the autocrats’ world that the Trump administration seeks to emulate, America is simply the mark. In a liberal-democratic world of scientific collaboration, openness, mutual assistance, and respect for citizens’ rights, including the privacy of personal data, the US could still be a leader.