Reposted from Mercury News
Michael Wessel and Larry Wortzel | December 12, 2012 | MercuryNews.com
China, with its enormous foreign currency reserves, is soon to launch a shopping spree for U.S. companies. A goal: Capture the most critical emerging technologies with potential military or security impact.
As part of this effort, Beijing Genomics Institute, of Shenzhen, is trying to buy Mountain View-based Complete Genomics, a leading genome and biotechnology firm. Research in this field may yield miraculous cures but may also be the building blocks of 21st-century bioweapons. The Committee on Foreign Investment in the U.S. must review this proposed purchase with the strictest scrutiny.
How Washington and states deal with the coming tsunami of similar Chinese investment will have enormous repercussions. The bulk of these investments will be made by Chinese state-owned and -controlled companies seeking to harness foreign companies to advance the aims of the government and the ruling Communist Party. Biotechnology is one of the “strategic emerging industries” identified in China’s recent 12th Five-Year Plan for state favoritism. China is reportedly investing $1.5 trillion in industries identified in this plan.
Complete Genomics is a leading U.S. company in this field, and its technology and market position would enhance China’s capabilities. Genomic research, the key to the development of new pharmaceuticals, will unlock the genetic codes to address common and not-so-common maladies. As the U.S. economy continues to seek its footing and create the jobs for the future, Washington should consider the economic impact of any transaction that transfers technology to our competitors. BGI’s proposed acquisition of Complete Genomics demands scrutiny under this economic test.
Many in Washington and around the states want to welcome Chinese investment with open arms. Indeed, some foreign investment has had a positive impact on job creation in many sectors. But judicious screening of Chinese investment is appropriate, since the impact of investment by state-controlled companies isn’t yet clear. 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?
The transaction raises very serious national security issues as well. Targeted genomic weapons are still somewhat hypothetical. But advances in genome and synthetic biotechnology could allow for bioweapons to be targeted at specific populations, groups or, indeed, individuals. The November Atlantic warned that:
“BGI hires thousands of bright young researchers each year. The training is great, but the wages are reportedly low. This means that many of its talented synthetic biologists may well be searching for better pay and greener pastures each year, too. Some of these jobs will undoubtedly appear in countries not yet on the (synthetic biology) radar. Iran, North Korea and Syria will almost certainly be hiring.”
Syria, Iran and North Korea’s military ambitions have advanced with China’s help. Bioweapons and genetic warfare may be next.
Certain genetic disorders, such as Tay-Sachs, are known to inordinately arise among certain groups. Such groups could be targeted as their genetic code is unlocked. The Atlantic article identified the potential for a bioweapon targeted specifically at the U.S. president. Unlikely, yes. Impossible, probably not.
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.
Michael Wessel and Larry Wortzel are congressionally appointed members of the U.S.-China Economic and Security Review Commission. They wrote this for this newspaper.