Genetic Databases in China

The Bioethics of Medical Device Sales in China: Genetic Databases in China

“DNA is the new fingerprint”

Across the globe there is an increase in the collection of genetic data for the purpose of creating databases. The most typical uses of these databases are for medical research purposes or more likely for the purpose of criminal justice proceedings. China is one of the first to embark on the creation of state level genetic database that gathers genetic data prior to a citizen’s entrance into the criminal justice system.

Genetic databases refer to the collection of human genetic information and the creation of a database that matches DNA to people. There has been a recent explosion in the creation and use of genetic databases throughout the world including in the US and China. Interpol maintains an automated DNA database called DNA Gateway that contains DNA profiles submitted by member countries collected from crime scenes, missing persons, and unidentified bodies. By the end of 2013, it had more than 140,000 DNA profiles from 69 member countries.

The US lead the way in creating these genetic databases through its CODIS database which is maintained by the FBI and the AFFSIR database which is maintained by the US military. As of 2018 CODIS contained 15 million profiles and AFFSIR contains 6.5 million profiles. The only other country besides China which has indicated that it will pursue a pre-emptive criminal justice genetic database is Dubai which in 2017 announced a plan to create a national DNA database which is proposed to contain the DNA record of all its citizens in an attempt to prevent crime.

The use of DNA databases in crime solving and prevention have shown increasing efficacy in the last couple years in the United States with several famous serial killers and rapists whose cases had gone cold were caught years later using these database methods. The most famous of these cases being the Golden State Killer, a prolific break and enter murdered who himself was the local commander of the police burglary task force and had used his expertise in that area to elude capture for 40 years. However the DNA database use is controversial and a 4th amendment challenge has not year reached the Supreme Court. Bioethics is an area of extreme debate even within a single culture like America. China has demonstrated a tolerance for more government directed policy in regards to medical policy than most Americans would be comfortable with at a legislative level. Most notably the one child policy. So the question becomes, if an American company sells an biomedical device to China what will be the response to its usage outside of American norms.

This question is being brought to the test. Recently an American company named Thermo Fisher sold approximately 10 billion dollars worth of the medical equipment necessary to create DNA databases to the Chinese government over the last couple years. Thermo Fisher claimed they were told it would be with consent and for a medical purpose. However the recently the New York Times alleged that the Chinese government used the devices to create a database of a certain ethnic group in China called the Uighurs who primarily practice Islam. The New York Times alleges that the creation of this database was primarily a tool for domestic surveillance in a discriminatory manner and created without consent by the Chinese government under the guise of normal government run healthcare.

The response of Thermo Fisher was to halt further device sales to the Chinese government. But the incident serves as a stark illustration of the potential dangers of cultural mismatch in the sale and use of bio-medical devices in the international market.