Coronavirus: Spies consulted on Andrew Forrest deal
The federal government sought advice from the nation’s spy agencies on the use of Chinese coronavirus testing equipment obtained by billionaire Andrew Forrest amid fears over the privacy of Australians’ genetic information.
China’s BGI Group, which is at the centre of President Xi Jinping’s push for global dominance in the field of human genomics, will provide machines and consumables for up to 10 million COVID-19 tests to be undertaken by Australian partners.
Health Minister Greg Hunt’s office confirmed high-level security advice was obtained on the risks in allowing the Chinese company to undertake the sensitive work.
“The government sought and obtained advice from security agencies about appropriate installation and use of the new platforms, and will be implementing this through contractual arrangements,” his spokesman said.
It’s understood those agencies included the Australian Signals Directorate, which used its cyber security expertise to ensure BGI testing machines could not be used to send DNA data obtained from Australian samples back to the company’s headquarters in China.
BGI’s Huoyan (“Fire Eye”) testing equipment was obtained by Mr Forrest through his “very deep” friendship with the company’s chairman, Wang Jian.
BGI technical specialists will install the equipment in at least 11 Sonic Healthcare and Healius laboratories in Sydney, Melbourne, Brisbane, Adelaide, Perth, Wollongong and Hobart, and provide training to lab staff.
The molecular testing platform has not been used in Australian and required fast-tracked approval by the Therapeutic Goods Administration last month, with conditions requiring the company to provide further compliance information within three months.
Mr Hunt’s spokesman said the government had taken extreme care to ensure the privacy of Australians data.
“BGI will have no access to patient information as they will not be operating the labs,” he said. “Patient data is already heavily protected by existing laws and these apply to all pathology tests.”
According to a report by the Australian Strategic Policy Institute, BGI developed China’s National Genebank and has operations in the Xinjiang region, where a million Muslim Uighurs are held in re-education camps.
La Trobe University China expert James Leibold, a non-resident senior fellow with the ASPI, called for the government to provide specific assurances over the way the data would be used, stored and eventually deleted or transferred.
US academic Elsa Kania has reported that BGI has collaborated with researchers from the PLA’s National University of Defence Technology. She said Mr Xi’s civil-military fusion doctrine had a major biotech focus, with Chinese military scholars talking of the possibility of genetic weapons" that were tailored to individuals or ethnic groups, and cited works by Chinese scholars saying biotech advances could unlock the possibility to create new synthetic pathogens “more toxic, more contagious, and more resistant”.