Closing the U.S. to Chinese Biotech Would Do Far More Harm Than Good

Within the gleaming white walls that house the ultramodern China National GeneBank (CNGB), huge digital maps display numbers that constantly tick upwards—a real-time count of China’s growing store of genetic data. In addition to the total number of samples, the displays show the density of data streaming into the central hub from different locales around the country. Not only does the CNGB have an extraordinary store of data at its disposal—more than 27 million biological samples—there is also still plenty of room left for it to grow.

China is fast becoming a biotechnology powerhouse and a perceived threat to the longstanding dominance of the United States in the sector. In Washington, these developments have been greeted in much the same way as China’s growing prowess in artificial intelligence and other emerging technologies: with panic and punitive measures. Last May, Florida Republican Senator Marco Rubio introduced the Genomics Data Security Act, which would, among other actions, ban the National Institutes of Health from funding China-affiliated entities. In September, Arkansas Republican Senator Tom Cotton and Wisconsin Representative Mike Gallagher called for “blacklisting” Chinese biotechnology companies over concerns they may be attempting to gather biomedical information on U.S. citizens for nefarious purposes. Just a few months later, the U.S. government sanctioned 12 Chinese life sciences research institutes and 22 private firms on security grounds.

There is a big problem, however, with these largely reactive, security-focused responses. Biotechnology is an intrinsically transnational and rapidly evolving sector that holds just as much promise for mutually beneficial collaboration and cooperation as for competition and contention. These distinctive characteristics of biotechnology mean that Washington’s security-driven approach to China and biotechnology risks harming U.S. competitiveness in the sector instead of enhancing it, while also limiting America’s ability to share in the development of mutually-beneficial technologies and work with Beijing to address the shared challenges posed by rapid developments in fields like gene editing. U.S. policy and strategy on China and biotechnology must strike a better balance between addressing legitimate concerns while maintaining the openness and innovation that underpin America’s competitive advantage in emerging technology.

Washington’s recent focus on China and biotechnology reflects the sector’s rapid growth, both in China and elsewhere. Biotechnology has been a focus of Beijing’s scientific and technological development plans since the 1980s, but more recently, ambitious policy goals have spurred sharp increases in public and private investment into the sector. Estimates of state investment in the biotechnology sector over the past decade reach as high as $100 billion. In a 2020 speech, Xi Jinping himself called for China to “master” biotechnology and mount a “society-wide effort” to achieve breakthroughs in the field. The life sciences, Xi went on to say, could be a “national treasure” that China must “seize with its own hand.”

Yet such statements belie the ways biotechnology differs from other fields. Biotechnology intrinsically blurs boundaries between science and commerce, market and state, the global and the national, and even personal privacy and collective interest. Progress depends more heavily in biotech than in other high-tech industries on knowledge networks and transnational collaboration, especially those that connect the United States and China.

A raft of studies on scientific and technological innovation conducted over the past two decades demonstrate that the ability of individual researchers to collaborate with firms and institutions in different countries significantly increases the quality of their work, especially when the collaboration is between U.S. and Chinese researchers, and especially in the field of biotechnology. COVID-19 vaccines likewise provide a powerful example of how U.S.-China knowledge networks help translate basic biotech research into commercial and medical applications. One of the key innovations underpinning the development of Pfizer’s and Moderna’s mRNA vaccines—the stabilization of the coronavirus spike protein—stemmed from the research of Dr. Wang Nianshuang, a graduate of China’s Tsinghua University studying on a postdoctoral fellowship in the lab of Dr. Jason McLellan at the University of Texas at Austin.

Even in the realm of commercial biotechnology, the U.S. and Chinese biotechnology sectors are more complementary than competitive. Many U.S. and Chinese biotech firms employ transnational business models that leverage the very different strengths of the American and Chinese biotechnology ecosystems, while many others—like BeiGene and Edigene—were essentially “born global.” Chinese biopharmaceutical companies harness China’s large population of patients to conduct time- and cost-efficient clinical trials that help inform U.S. regulatory approvals. Cancer drugs developed by Chinese firms show considerable promise in lowering prices and offering new treatment options to patients in the U.S. and elsewhere. Likewise, Chinese, American, and European firms all regularly license each other’s technologies and drugs as part of their technological development and marketing strategies. The corporate c-suites and scientific advisory boards of individual firms likewise often consist of individuals of multiple nationalities with experience working in both American and Chinese contexts. Ultimately, in both academic research and commercial science, the division between American and Chinese biotechnology is less clear and less meaningful than in other high-tech fields.

Biotechnology’s reliance on basic science and transnational knowledge networks also means that competition in biotechnology plays out differently than it does in other high-tech industries. Unlike the semiconductor and telecommunication sectors, whose development depends on expensive equipment and hard-to-acquire manufacturing expertise, barriers to entry in biotechnology are low. Likewise, as Eric Lander’s now infamous mapping of CRISPR’s development illustrates, both foundational research and key innovations in biotechnology often take place in the public domain and build on incremental advancements made across the globe. When breakthroughs, like employing CRISPR as a means of gene-editing, do occur they spread through global scientific networks with little heed for national boundaries. Consequently, it is not a zero-sum industry in which a single innovation sets any firm or country ahead for a prolonged period. Take mRNA vaccines as an example. Not only did Moderna and the international Pfizer-BioNTech collaboration concurrently develop mRNA vaccines, China is also currently finishing up phase three trials for its own mRNA vaccine. In contrast to the Moderna and Pfizer-BioNTech vaccines, however, the Walvax-Suzhou Abogen-PLA Academy of Military Science vaccine is thermostable at room temperature for seven days—a key advantage when trying to vaccinate the developing world against COVID-19 and other diseases.

Given these dynamics, the restrictive policy tools under discussion in Washington pose serious risks to U.S. competitiveness in the sector. While policymakers frame “engagement” and “competition” as opposing modalities of contending with China’s technological rise, maintaining an innovative edge in biotechnology requires staying plugged in to international scientific networks and engaged with one’s competitors, regardless of whether they are domestic or international. This is, after all, part of why the biotechnology industry tends to develop in clusters. Similarly, Japan’s ongoing struggle to grow its biotechnology industry, given its low level of integration into global clinical research networks, highlights the potential perils of constricting U.S.-China knowledge networks in the sector. Blocking Chinese biotechnology companies from entering American markets is unlikely to impede China’s emergence as a major player in the industry, but it does threaten to prevent American firms and researchers from accessing the talent, ideas, and technologies these firms have to offer. To decouple is to risk missing out, and thus risk falling behind.

Just as security-driven approaches stand at odds with many realities of the biotechnology sector, U.S. policymakers and politicians sometimes mischaracterize and exoticize the threats that China’s growing global role in biotechnology pose to U.S. national security. These mischaracterizations often take the form of highlighting behavior that is hardly unique to China, and is, in fact, common in the industry. Fears expressed by some U.S. officials that Beijing is pursuing research in areas like human genetic enhancement for military purposes, for instance, are wildly exaggerated; such techniques lie well beyond the realm of scientific feasibility. Moreover, while links between the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) and Chinese biotechnology companies and research institutes should be thoroughly investigated, not all military-funded medical research and dual-use technologies constitute security threats. For instance, the media has problematized BGI’s hearing loss research with the PLA, yet the American Department of Defense funds multiple hearing loss projects at American academic and commercial medical institutions, in addition to countless other medical research projects on topics as uncontroversial as ovarian cancer, breast cancer, and lupus. In both countries, many military-funded dual-use projects in the biological sciences consist of rather innocuous medical research, including vaccine development.

Another dubious concern is the growing collection of biomedical data by Chinese firms operating abroad. Surreptitious collection of personal medical data was highlighted last summer both by Senator Tom Cotton and in a Reuters report finding that BGI Group, a leading Chinese genomics firm, was collecting data from millions of prenatal tests offered to pregnant women within and outside China. But the sort of collection undertaken by BGI, for instance, does not appear to be illegal, or even out-of-line with the practices of its foreign competitors. While BGI’s data collection efforts benefit from China’s more centralized healthcare provision system, using genetic diagnostic tests to build datasets is the main business model of both the direct-to-consumer testing industry and the clinical genetics industry globally. In fact, BGI’s proclivity for academic research, publishing, and international collaboration arguably renders some aspects of the organization’s data use more transparent than some of its international counterparts.

At the same time, U.S. policymakers’ focus on surreptitious biomedical collection by Chinese firms abroad risks obscuring a bigger challenge to U.S. interests: Beijing’s increasingly protectionist approach to biomedical data-sharing. Thanks to its massive national health insurance scheme, China’s state has access to data on hundreds of millions of individual patients. This data could be extremely valuable both for medical research purposes and commercial applications, potentially facilitating treatment discovery and development. Yet China has adopted strict rules like the 2019 Regulations on the Management of Human Genetic Resources, requiring foreign firms, universities, and other entities to apply for permission from the state to use Chinese biomedical data. While many of these regulations have existed since 1998, they have been increasingly enforced in recent years and are now being implemented more vigorously, resulting in retracted papers and strained—if not cancelled—international collaborations. China’s 2020 Biosecurity Law likewise contains explicit claims of sovereignty over China’s genetic and biological resources. While such regulations are not unique, Beijing’s massive store of biomedical data may create a significant commercial and scientific advantage for Chinese biotechnology firms. Washington must take this risk more seriously and push for greater reciprocity.

Another legitimate worry is the perpetuation of human rights abuses tied to genetic data collection within China’s borders. Biomedical data, some of it amassed and analyzed with the help of U.S.-based researchers and U.S.-origin equipment, has been gathered from minority populations like the Uyghurs and large portions of the male Han population without informed consent and used to compile massive genetic databases. Journalists report that these databases are being used in forensic DNA profiling and potentially phenotyping, making it easier to identify members of minority groups and potentially making them more susceptible to discriminatory surveillance or other forms of state repression. Such practices deserve the condemnation of the U.S. government and of the international community, and warrant a firm policy response, including banning the export of biomedical equipment to Chinese entities involved in such abuses. To its credit, the Biden administration has attempted to curb these practices, including through its recent December sanctions.

Yet at the same time, Washington and Beijing have good reasons to see certain areas of biotechnology as grounds for cooperation rather than conflict or competition. The most advanced areas of biotechnology, like gene editing and synthetic biology, are double-edged swords. They show great promise to help cure chronic diseases and develop drought-resistant crops, but also to create dangerous new viruses, human genetic modifications, and even genetically-engineered terrorism. The risks and threats posed by these emerging biotechnologies cannot be confined to any one country. Potentially dangerous biotechnology research can be undertaken virtually anywhere, meaning that all countries need to develop and enforce rules preventing research that could create new viruses or bioweapons, for example. China is an especially important player in international biosafety and biosecurity, and the country’s 2020 legislation on both topics is, on paper at least, among the most stringent in the world. Gene therapy trials based on somatic editing are underway in both the U.S. and China, and as researchers in both countries begin to tinker with the fundamental building blocks of life, engagement on the use of these groundbreaking, but potentially dangerous, technologies is needed both to ensure transparency as well as to begin the difficult process of establishing mutually-agreed rules and norms.

These realities of China and biotechnology mean that U.S. policymakers should rethink their approach to the sector in three major respects.

First, the United States needs a coherent biotechnology policy framework. The best approach to addressing the challenges that China’s growing role in biotechnology pose for American interests is to strengthen America’s biotechnology sector. Priorities should include increased public funding of research as well as for training and talent development, and immigration reforms to ensure that the best and brightest minds in biotechnology continue to live and work in the United States. Washington should also avoid policies like the China Initiative, which aimed to combat China-linked information theft from U.S. research institutions, that are widely perceived to be xenophobic and discourage talented Chinese students from staying in the U.S. and becoming citizens. Though the China Initiative has been formally discontinued, many of its basic elements remain. A better approach is a more proactive one. While policymakers sometimes characterize China’s talent programs, such as the Thousand Talents Plan, as forms of espionage, these plans’ success in attracting scientists and entrepreneurs to China is ultimately a function of the global scientific labor market. China’s programs offer researchers high salaries, job security, substantial stable research funding, and support for entrepreneurship. The U.S. should respond in turn by investing in recruiting and retaining top biotech talent.

Second, the United States should invest in data. Cutting-edge biotechnology applications like precision medicine depend on large, high-quality, and diverse datasets. In contrast to China’s increasingly sophisticated data governance framework, however, its American equivalent is a mishmash of conflicting regulations that vary by state. Outdated privacy laws and a fragmented healthcare system impede both the collection and aggregation of biomedical data for research purposes. Updated policy should prioritize common standards and structure for biomedical data collection that make data easy to share and understand, subject to privacy protections. Washington should also emphasize fair access to and transfer of biomedical data in its negotiations with Beijing over trade and market access. To stay ahead, U.S. policymakers must also work to expand access to global datasets, especially from close U.S. allies. At the same time, Washington should begin to pressure Beijing to ease rules that bar biomedical data-sharing, especially for research purposes.

Finally, to enable effective regulation of shared biotech challenges, science itself needs to be brought back into policymaking. Policymakers need to better understand how the biotechnology sector works, while researchers and industry leaders—those most familiar with the science behind and implications of these technologies—need to be brought into policy conversations. Giving researchers more voice in policymaking will help to counter the tendency to politicize, exoticize, and securitize biotechnology issues.

As in so many other areas, China is an increasingly central, and powerful, player in biotechnology. But for the United States and other countries, this fast-evolving role holds considerable promise as well as peril. Securitizing biotechnology alongside other emerging technologies risks doing more harm than good for the United States and for the values of free exchange, transparency, and free enterprise that it has long upheld.