DUBAI, United Arab Emirates - While the U.S. struggled to come up with enough tests to manage the world's largest coronavirus outbreak, a Chinese genetics company took less than a month to build testing centers thousands of miles away in the Middle East.
By moving swiftly, Shenzhen-based BGI Group won hundreds of millions of dollars in contracts with traditional U.S. allies including Israel, the United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia. Now the U.S. is warning those countries that they may be giving Beijing access to highly prized personal data that will propel economies of the future.
The push against adoption of Chinese testing technology is part of a wider row between the U.S. and China that's complicated global efforts to mount a response to the pandemic. President Donald Trump accuses China of hiding information about the origins of the outbreak and has withheld funding from the World Health Organization, saying it's overly influenced by Beijing. China says the White House is trying to divert attention from its own failings as American deaths soar.
A U.S. official described BGI to Bloomberg as the "Huawei of genomics," a reference to the Chinese telecommunications firm, Huawei Technologies Co., that the U.S. has been seeking to block from digital network deals on information-security grounds. Washington has raised its concerns about BGI with Mideast partners, the official said on condition of anonymity, warning them that Beijing could glean information of intelligence value and share it with their adversaries such as Iran, one of China's top trading partners in the region.
That argument doesn't seem to be holding much sway over U.S. allies, as China turns its experience in managing the crisis into a global opportunity. Nor has the U.S., with a virus death toll nearly triple any other country's, been able to offer much of an alternative.
"China has seized the moment," said Jonathan Fulton, assistant professor at Abu Dhabi's Zayed University and a specialist in China-Gulf relations. "This is happening while the U.S. just seems completely overburdened."
BGI began life in 1999 as the Beijing Genomics Institute, a state-backed lab dedicated to assisting the Human Genome Project, a global effort to assemble the first-ever comprehensive picture of human DNA. In 2007, the company's founders broke away from the Chinese Academy of Sciences, the state-controlled umbrella for high-level research, to transform it into a private company focused on sequencing. It went on to build China's national gene bank.
BGI has never made a detailed disclosure of the wider group's ownership, even though one unit - BGI Genomics Co. - is listed on the Chinese stock exchange and reported $405 million in revenue last year. When asked about allegations surrounding its testing partnerships in the Middle East, BGI said by email that it's neither owned nor controlled by the Chinese government. In February, BGI set up an emergency lab in Wuhan, the epicenter of the pandemic.
"For the newly built COVID-19 labs, BGI's customers, not BGI, will manage patient samples and access patient data," said Ning Li, vice president of BGI Group and chief development officer of BGI Genomics. "The labs are operated by the local health authorities or institutions, not by BGI. BGI provides technology transfer. The equipment has no ability to collect personal data."
As the virus swept into the Gulf, the company helped set up the largest coronavirus detection laboratory outside China in collaboration with G42, an Emirati artificial intelligence and cloud-computing company. Built in 14 days in March, the Abu Dhabi-based center can perform tens of thousands of tests a day and uses Chinese-manufactured robots to prepare samples.
G42 said the lab could be expanded to test samples from neighboring regions and the partnership has supplied Afghanistan with a first batch of detection kits. The lab will also monitor virus mutations and detect future pathogens with DNA sequencing, suggesting a long-term partnership.
BGI won't have "access to the laboratory data," G42 said in an emailed statement. "Strict protocols are in place to protect the information security and data privacy against any unauthorized access, both external and internal."
The company has assisted 80 nations with testing so far and is in talks to help construct laboratories in more than 10 countries, BGI said. Its nucleic acid test for the virus has been used in excess of 20 million times and has regulatory approvals in Europe, the U.S., Japan, Australia and elsewhere, it said.
U.S. Assistant Secretary of State for Near Eastern Affairs David Schenker accused China of using "face-mask diplomacy" to distract from its lack of transparency over the origins of the virus. Declining to comment on specific companies, he said data passing through Chinese entities could be "compromised" and echoed the comparison with Huawei.
"There are states in the region that understand this," Schenker said by phone. "We are a partner that has provided billions of dollars over the years in investment in the health sector, humanitarian aid in the region, and we're not leaving."
China's foreign ministry didn't immediately respond to a request for comment about the allegations surrounding BGI.
Israel's AID Genomics unveiled a tie-up with the Chinese company a week after the firm took up its virus role in the UAE. The venture aimed to set up a lab in the Gaza Strip capable of 3,000 tests per day with the backing of Israeli and Palestinian authorities, the companies said. Separately, Israel's government said BGI would help it carry out 20,000 tests per day.
Israel's government said it gave serious consideration to information security in the partnership. BGI won't have access to results or raw data, an official at the country's health ministry said, asking not to be identified. Clalit, a Tel Aviv-based health services provider, declined to comment to Bloomberg on a local media report that it declined to work with BGI over concerns about access to sensitive data.
In Saudi Arabia, a phone call between King Salman and Chinese President Xi Jinping led to a $265 million deal with BGI to supply the kingdom with 9 million testing kits, 500 staff and six laboratories capable of handling 50,000 samples a day. BGI said it was also planning an additional lab that would allow 30% of the kingdom's population to be tested in the next eight months as needed.
The partnership "confirms the strength of long-standing Saudi-Chinese ties," royal court adviser Abdullah al-Rabeeah said in a statement when the deal was signed.
UAE Foreign Minister Sheikh Abdullah bin Zayed al-Nahyan commended China as a "role model" in the fight against the virus. It set "the best example for how these trying times will pass by through collaboration and solidarity," he said after a call with his Chinese counterpart last month.
In a recent virtual panel, a UAE official and an influential Saudi prince called on the U.S. and China to put aside their differences in order to fight the virus. Asked to comment on U.S. concerns about BGI, the UAE Foreign Ministry said it welcomes collaboration "with the best companies around the world, especially in light of the current crisis, which requires cooperation across countries and sectors."
With attacks on China becoming a centerpiece of Trump's reelection strategy, the Chinese inroads aren't going unanswered. Last week, Secretary of State Michael Pompeo broke his virus seclusion with a trip abroad to Israel - in part to deliver a warning against deepening ties with Beijing.
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