China’s Biotech Boom Could Transform Lives—or Destroy Them

Washington and Beijing have a shared interest in making sure new technology stays within limits.

Five cloned macaques at a Chinese research institution
Five cloned macaques at a research institution in Shanghai on Nov. 27, 2018. STR/AFP via Getty Images

When James Clapper, the U.S. director of national intelligence at the time, appeared before Congress in early January 2016 for an annual briefing of threats to the United States, he didn’t lack for material. Just a few weeks earlier, North Korea had tested a nuclear device, and Russia had begun deploying cruise missiles that appeared to violate a crucial arms-control agreement. But to the surprise of many experts, Clapper devoted a good chunk of his time to describing a much more exotic threat: biomedical research. Specifically, Clapper warned, “Research in genome editing conducted by countries with different regulatory or ethical standards than those of Western countries probably increases the risk of the creation of potentially harmful biological agents or products.”

Clapper’s statement didn’t explicitly mention China—but it didn’t need to. As his testimony went on to make clear, while in the 20th century the United States and Soviet Union held the keys to preventing planetary catastrophe, in the 21st the principal players are the United States and China. And while in a previous age keeping Pandora’s box closed meant preventing nuclear war, today it’s about preventing biotech dangers.

In just the past few years, the development of inexpensive gene-editing techniques has democratized biomedical research, producing a biotech bonanza in places such as China and creating a whole new category of security threats in the process, from the use of genetic information to persecute dissidents and minority groups to the development of sophisticated bioweapons.

When it comes to the United States, China, and technology, artificial intelligence tends to grab most of the attention. But policymakers need to come to grips with the even bigger threat of biotechnology—and soon. Fortunately, though, shared concerns about China’s role in biotechnology also provide a rare chance for meaningful and productive engagement in shaping the rules of a new world.

China’s starring role in preventing the 21st century’s biotech perils stems from its skyrocketing investment in biomedical research. Historically, Western countries, and especially the United States, have been the epicenter of research in the life sciences. The United States alone accounted for some 45 percent of biotech and medical patents filed in the 14-year period ending in 2013. But now, thanks to heavy state-backed investment, China is catching up. Economic plans instituted in 2015 call for the biotechnology sector to account for more than 4 percent of China’s total GDP by 2020, and estimates suggest that as of 2018, central, provincial, and local governments had already invested over $100 billion in the life sciences. Chinese venture capital and private equity investment in the life sciences, meanwhile, totaled some $45 billion just from 2015 to 2017.

China has also invested considerable effort in competing with countries like the United States for biotech talent. Of some 7,000 researchers recruited under the Thousand Talents Plan since 2008, more than 1,400 specialized in the life sciences. A leading American geneticist, Harris Lewin, has warned that the United States is “starting to fall behind … the Chinese, who have always been good collaborators, [are] now taking the lead.”

For the United States and other Western countries, China’s growing role in biomedical research is raising plenty of concern. Several Chinese researchers have shown a willingness to ignore ethical and regulatory constraints on genetic research. In 2018, He Jiankui became a poster child for scientific irresponsibility when he announced he had edited the genes of two twins in utero without following basic safety protocols. He reportedly dismissed them as guidelines, not laws.

Yet the reaction at home was not what He had hoped for. His research had been made possible by the relatively lax standards of Chinese universities, even as he had kept the true nature of it secret from many involved – while discussing it with a small group of Western bioethicists and scientists, who stressed their disapproval. It’s not uncommon in China to break the rules and be lauded for the results anyway, whatever the field. For He, though, the vast international attention that came after the story broke cost him his career and possibly his freedom. Chinese media rushed to stress official disapproval of the experiments. Even the overt purpose of the editing – to ensure that the babies, born to HIV+ mothers, enjoyed protection against the virus – turned out to be scientifically weak.

As China’s biotech sector grows, so too do fears that Chinese researchers like He will be more willing to push the limits of both science and ethics than those in the United States. Earlier this year, Chinese researchers recorded another mind-bending milestone when they implanted human genes linked to intelligence into monkey embryos—and then said that the monkeys performed better on memory tests.

The dominance of the party-state in China raises serious concerns around biotechnology, especially because it carries increasingly ethnonationalist tone. When in 2018 Chinese researchers created the world’s first primate clones, for example, they dubbed them Zhong Zhong and Hua Hua, from the term zhonghua meaning “The Chinese Nation”—an oddly jingoistic moniker for a pair of monkeys. Chinese government policies often blur the line between eugenics and education, lumped together as improving the “quality” (suzhi) of the population, which received another stamp of official endorsement following the recent Fourth Plenum. These programs are carried out through the country’s huge so-called family planning bureaucracy—originally established to enforce the one-child policy.

Moreover, Beijing is increasingly extending its formidable social control apparatus into the realm of genetics. While there are considerable restrictions on private firms sharing biomedical data, largely because of an ugly history of popular discrimination against hepatitis carriers, the government has no such restrictions. A New York Times report earlier this year suggested, for example, that Chinese authorities had assembled a vast trove of genetic data on Chinese citizens without their consent, with the Uighur minority group having been specifically targeted.

Beijing’s brand of bio-nationalism also directly threatens the United States. U.S. officials have been warning universities and research institutions that the biotech sector is a focal point for Chinese industrial espionage activities in the United States. And this past August, a senior Defense Department official warned Congress that China’s growing role in pharmaceutical manufacturing could allow it to disrupt deliveries of critical battlefield medicines, or potentially even alter them to harm U.S. forces

Yet the biggest risks posed by biotech, for China, the United States, and other countries, pertain to nonstate actors. A critical feature of modern biotech, in contrast to technology like nuclear weapons, is that it’s cheap and easy to develop. A technique known as CRISPR, which the Chinese researcher He used in his illicit gene-editing work, makes it practical for just about anyone to manipulate the genomes of just about any organism they can lay their hands on. CRISPR makes it much simpler to skirt ethical restrictions and terrifyingly straightforward for terrorist groups to develop fearsome biological weapons.

Researchers have already shown it’s possible to reconstruct the smallpox virus, which was eradicated in the real world in the 1970s, for as little as $200,000 using DNA fragments you can order online. If a terrorist or rogue state were to successfully do so, virtually no one alive would have any resistance to the virus—and most stockpiles of the vaccine were destroyed long ago. There is an organization, the International Gene Synthesis Consortium, that tries to screen suspicious orders for DNA fragments that might be used to build such bioweapons. And while most of the world’s major DNA synthesis firms belong to the consortium, membership is completely voluntary, and there’s also a thriving and entirely unregulated black market—much of it based in China.

All of this means that biosecurity standards in places like China matter more than ever. After all, if a major bioweapon were to be unleashed, it’s unlikely that any major, globally integrated country could escape unharmed. Fortunately, there are growing signs China is open to better regulation of its biotech sector. In February, the Chinese government announced that “high risk” biomedical research would be overseen by the State Council, China’s equivalent of the cabinet—a sign of the concern with which Beijing views incidents like the He Jiankui CRISPR scandal. In a further sign of this concern, in August, the Chinese Communist Party announced the creation of a new committee to advise top leaders on research ethics.

Government worry is matched by growing public concern within China. Opposition to genetically modified organisms is arguably stronger in China than in the West, and health concerns top the list of public issues. Rumors and panics largely center around health issues, especially after a series of vaccination scandals. That means that the government has to walk unusually carefully and offers plenty of scope to build ethical concerns into both law and practice.

There are plenty of issues for U.S.-China cooperation on biotechnology and biosecurity to address. Given China’s role in the He Jiankui scandal, meanwhile, it would make sense to partner with the United States and other countries as part of a new World Health Organization effort to set international guidelines for the use of CRISPR. Another promising area of U.S.-China cooperation, especially in the research community, relates to so-called gene drives, the process of editing genomes and then spreading them through an entire population in just a few generations. Using gene drives to prevent select mosquito species from reproducing, for example, might finally banish the world of debilitating, widespread diseases such as malaria and Zika, while endangered species might be engineered to survive climate change.

Microsoft founder Bill Gates once observed that “The world hasn’t had that many technologies that are both promising and dangerous. … We had nuclear weapons and nuclear energy.” But thanks in large part to the efforts of biomedical researchers in the United States and China, biotechnology is opening a similar Pandora’s box. And while the world has so far avoided nuclear war or conflict, it’s done so largely though efforts by governments, aided by the fact that nuclear technology is extremely difficult and expensive to master.

The new wave of synthetic biology is exactly the opposite: It’s cheap to use and employ. For that very reason, while the U.S., Chinese, and other governments will be critical to dealing with the threat of new technologies, the discussions can’t be limited to nation-states. They’ll also have to gather together individual researchers, institutions, companies, and organizations like the International Gene Synthesis Consortium. When it comes to the risks posed by emerging technologies, Beijing, like Washington, will have to face the limits of its ability to solve the problem on its own.

Scott Moore is the director of the Penn Global China Program at the University of Pennsylvania.