Opinion: Congressional scare tactics won’t protect Americans’ DNA

Bill restricting biotechs from working with certain China-affiliated companies is a political stunt rooted in xenophobia.

By RADE DRMANAC

Protecting Americans’ DNA from foreign exploitation — indeed, from any exploitation — is a laudable goal. But Congress’ latest proposal restricting biotechs from working with certain firms and suppliers is an ineffective result of xenophobia and political fearmongering.

In recent months, Congress began pushing the BIOSECURE Act, a bill that would prohibit government agencies and labs doing federally funded research from working with certain China-affiliated biotech companies. It would also require U.S. companies to sever their contracts by 2032 with the companies named in the bill.

Let’s look at the big picture: Since the United States’ founding, this country has championed innovation and entrepreneurship. These welcoming qualities brought me here in 1991. Back then, I was an unknown scientist — an immigrant from Serbia with the idiosyncratic dream to make DNA sequencing efficient and affordable. The San Jose-based company I founded in 2005 — Complete Genomics (CG) — now employs about 200 people.

In 2013, a Chinese group acquired CG — with U.S. government approval. Today we are a subsidiary of MGI, publicly traded on the Shanghai stock exchange. To the proponents of BIOSECURE, this now forms the basis of a sinister sci-fi narrative in which CG has access to Americans’ genetic information and will use it for nefarious purposes.

This shows a basic ignorance of what CG does: We make and sell equipment. We do not have access to, collect or maintain the genetic data of patients; our customers retain full control over their data. Former FBI cybersecurity experts at FTI Consulting have validated the security of our technology and concluded it did not have any capability to transmit data. Moreover, we operate independently of any Chinese government entity.

Congress’ lack of seriousness stands clear. The BIOSECURE Act will not do what its supporters claim to want — i.e., protect Americans’ personal DNA data. Instead, it will score cheap political points based on fears of China and, perhaps not coincidentally, leave the U.S. market in the hands of the single dominant player that has lobbied for the bill: San Diego-based Illumina Inc.

Illumina already controls 80% of the U.S. genomics market. BIOSECURE will expand that dominance, resulting in less competition, higher prices and fewer choices. It will leave the U.S. health care and biotech industries with no access to our advanced sequencing platform. Ironically, while Congress targets CG, Illumina is drawing closer to China. For example, Illumina has entered a joint venture with Haplox, a major player in China biotech, and built its own manufacturing facility there, boasting of its high-level relationships with China’s elite.

Such hypocrisy reveals BIOSECURE for the political stunt that it is. Instead of protecting Americans, passage of the BIOSECURE Act would mean the end of CG. It would limit the power of research dollars for researchers and labs who depend on us. Patients and their families would pay the price.

Last May, our company opened a 10,000-square-foot manufacturing facility on Orchard Parkway in San Jose. We decided to build it after seeing the challenges the COVID-19 pandemic presented to the global genomics supply chain. This new facility will shorten lead times and allow us to better support U.S. customers. Who are those customers? They are researchers using next-generation sequencing products to develop diagnoses and treatments for life-threatening conditions, including cancer, Alzheimer’s and immune diseases.

That is the work that motivates us — and why CG has invested more than $60 million in the San Jose economy in 2023. As scientists, we are committed to this important work; as an employer, we are committed to this region. What a pity it would be if this country, once so welcoming, responded to this commitment with rejection.

Rade Drmanac is the founder of San Jose-based Complete Genomics and serves today as its chief science officer.

This opinion was also published in Mercury News on June 28, 2024.