Seeking Strictest Scrutiny
Writing in the Mercury News of San Jose, CA, Wessel and Dr. Wortzel declared that CFIUS “must review this proposed purchase with the strictest scrutiny.”
“Judicious screening of Chinese investment is appropriate, since the impact of investment by state-controlled companies isn't yet clear,” the two wrote December 12. “Will this be another cash-and-carry investment where China buys the assets and technological know-how, only to pack it up and take it home? Or will it continue to operate Complete Genomics' operations here in the U.S. and allow the fruits of any developments to create opportunity here at home?”
BGI has said it would keep Complete Genomics in the U.S., where the company is headquartered in Mountain View, CA, and operate it as a wholly owned subsidiary. Clifford Reid, Ph.D., will remain CEO of Complete.
Wessel told GEN that CFIUS appears to have given the deal strict scrutiny: “The fact that CFIUS utilized the longer transaction review procedures I hope indicates that they did just that.”
Wessel and Dr. Wortzel cited several chilling scenarios laid out in a November article in The Atlantic, among examples of how the science behind sequencing can also possibly be used for harm someday. Among those scenarios: Billions of virus particles activate on contact with the president’s DNA, killing him. Drugs that effectively target cancer are turned instead against target healthy retinal cells, causing blindness.
“Research in this field may yield miraculous cures, but may also be the building blocks of 21st century bioweapons,” Wessel and Dr. Wortzel concluded. “As the wave of Chinese investment begins, we must not ignore the risks. Scrutinizing Chinese investments—especially those involving next-generation technologies and capabilities—is just plain common sense. This sale may not be an innocuous investment in science.”
Disagreeing with that assessment is George M. Church, Ph.D., professor of genetics at Harvard Medical School, and an adviser to both BGI and Complete Genomics.
“If your goal were to do something at a national security level, you would not do it in such plain sight as to be a multinational clinical lab. You would instead be a surreptitious spy organization, where you would go in, you’d get a sample, and you’d do it in private. You wouldn’t set up this whole multinational clinical organization,” Dr. Church told GEN. “Barack Obama is not necessarily going to be sending his DNA out to BGI or CGI [Complete Genomics]. If you wanted Barack Obama’s DNA, you’d follow him around with a vacuum cleaner.”
It’s hard, he said, to know what nationalism is or pinpoint national interests today when almost every major company is multinational, and many multinational companies are bigger than nations: “If this is keeping one of our prized companies afloat, then anybody who comes to their rescue should be welcomed.” As for security concerns, Dr. Church rejected the view that the company posed a threat, saying BGI is no different from other businesses and institutions that emphasize privacy in their handling of data, especially patient-related information.