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Genomics and National Security

Volume 729: debated on Wednesday 8 March 2023

I will call Mr Alistair Campbell to move the motion. I will then call the Minister, who has just arrived, to respond. As an experienced Member of the House, the right hon. Gentleman will be well aware that there will not be an opportunity for him to wind up, as it is a 30-minute debate. I call Mr Alistair Campbell to move the motion—sorry, I mean Mr Alistair Carmichael.

I beg to move,

That this House has considered genomics and national security.

Alistair Campbell, of course, might be somebody who will wind up at some point. Notwithstanding that minor quibble, it is a pleasure to serve with you in the Chair, Mr Davies, and to bring what might be seen by some as a slightly niche subject to the House. I am pleased to see the Minister in his place.

It is worth stating at the outset why I have initiated the debate and what I hope to achieve with it. Let me first accentuate the positives. Genomics is a great British success story and the opportunities for further advancement in the future are phenomenal. In 2003, two years ahead of schedule, the Human Genome Project successfully sequenced the human genome. Since then, genomic research has transformed healthcare. Numerous genomic applications, including non-invasive prenatal genetic testing, DNA-based forensics, genetic disease diagnostics and covid-19 surveillance are now commonplace. Indeed, covid exposed the importance of genomics in monitoring new variants and enabling targeted interventions at a community level. The industry is already worth billions and it will only grow.

But we all know that where there are opportunities, there are also risks—and that is where I want to take the Minister’s attention today. I have been a Minister; he has been a Minister. We all understand that although government can do many great things, it is often clunky and finds difficulties responding when science and technology bring change at a quite bewildering pace, which is exactly what is happening here.

I thank the right hon. Gentleman for securing this debate; he is right to underline the issue of risk. Not so long ago I read an article that highlighted the previous existing ties between UK universities and Chinese state-linked companies, about which the US National Security Commission on Artificial Intelligence had issued a warning. It referred to a

“global collection mechanism for Chinese government genetic databases.”

Does the right hon. Member agree that although it is important to encourage the use of genomics for early intervention and prevention, the national security of information gathered is also of utmost—and perhaps even greater—importance?

Absolutely, and the question of the work in our universities and other research institutions is one to which I will turn in some detail later. I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for giving me the opportunity to highlight its importance in this debate.

Consider, though, what happened in recent years in relation to data protection. Regulation of data use was essentially analogue in a world that had gone digital, and it was therefore possible for a company such as Cambridge Analytica to take advantage of poor regulation and to build a business model that was all about the manipulation of opinion.

Genomics is a subject that is often poorly understood outside its own walls. A few years ago, we would have said exactly the same thing about data protection and mass data capture; we simply did not understand the significance of data capture through social media. Well, we understand that better now, and as a consequence we are having to scramble to catch up. If the Minister wants a bit of entertaining bedtime reading in this subject, I recommend Chris Wylie’s book—forgive the vulgarity, but this is the title—“Mindf*ck”. It is about the creation of the Cambridge Analytica model, which used data captured from social media. If we do not learn the lessons of data capture and data protection, we risk the same things happening in genomics and national security.

As a country, we need to ensure that we have a suitable regulatory environment that will protect the gains we have made in the genomics space. That regulation has to protect individual data privacy rights and our national security and economic interests. I believe that our regime falls short in the latter aspect, and it must be made fit for purpose.

We know the positive applications of genomics, and in the coming decade genomics research could lead to breakthrough therapies for hundreds of genetic diseases. It could also create a truly personalised approach to healthcare and enable us to predict the risk of disease at a population level. However, there are also enormously dangerous applications of the technology. Genomic research could be, and in some cases already is being, deployed to widen global health inequalities, curtail human rights, and threaten global peace and stability. There is a spectrum of threat involved, which can range from population engineering to improve “population quality” to genetic extinction technologies in bioweapons.

Genomics is the next frontier in surveillance for repressive regimes such as China, and in 2022, the Citizen Lab found that since 2016 the Chinese Government had been conducting mass DNA campaigns in Tibet and in Xinjiang, as well as a police-led national programme of male DNA collection, to intensify state repression and control.

How are we in the UK mitigating those threats? From Watson and Crick to John Sulston’s vision to map the human genome, applying technology developed by Fred Sanger, the UK has long led the world in this vital research. Still today, our world-leading universities and thriving genomics ecosystem, combined with our continued role in the western alliance, mean that the UK can lead the way in ensuring that genomics is used for the right reasons and in the right way. However, that will continue only if the right decisions are taken now.

More than half our research is a product of international partnerships, and those partnerships need to be based on shared values over the protection of human rights and on reciprocity. The Centre for the Protection of National Infrastructure already does important work to protect the integrity of international research collaboration, but we must be more proactive. Our institutions need to get the most out of international scientific collaboration while protecting intellectual property, sensitive research, personal information and, ultimately, our national defence.

Already, it is evidenced that questionable actors are finding a way into the space left by poor regulation, and we risk finding ourselves a few years down the line in the situation we were in some years ago when we had to remove Huawei from the roll-out of the 5G network. Had we acted earlier on Huawei, we would not have had to engineer it out later.

In the field of genomics, more attention needs to be paid to the work of the Chinese gene giant, the BGI Group. BGI is one of a large number of Chinese state-linked companies that have been implicated in the repression of Uyghurs and the forced collection of genetic data. It has a lengthy history of collaboration with the People’s Liberation Army, and is just one example of a company that should not be operating without constraint within our institutions.

The UK relies on the general data protection regulation to regulate the work of groups such as BGI and hopes that genomics firms such as BGI will follow GDPR, rather than the Chinese national security law, but I genuinely question just how likely that is. As the Minister will know, article 7 of the national security law states that

“organisations and citizens shall support, assist, and cooperate with national intelligence efforts”.

That is a law to which BGI is subject. The BGI Group does not submit itself to independent data security or cyber-security audits, and essentially, we are prepared to take BGI on trust. To me, that feels a little naive.

The US National Security Commission on Artificial Intelligence noted:

“BGI may be serving…as a global collection mechanism for Chinese government genetic databases”.

It also said that BGI

“poses similar threats in the biotechnology sector as Huawei does in the communications sector.”

In 2020, the US Department of Commerce added Xinjiang Silk Road BGI and Beijing Liuhe BGI—two BGI subsidiaries—to an export blacklist for

“conducting genetic analyses used to further the repression of Uyghurs and other Muslim minorities”.

If that is the conclusion of some of our most trusted allies’ agencies, why is the United Kingdom so determined to take a different approach? I fear it may be that we are already further down the road of reliance on companies such as BGI than many in the Government are prepared to acknowledge and admit.

On a point made by the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon), a recent Times investigation found that no fewer than 42 universities in the United Kingdom that have links with Chinese institutions connected to the repression of the Uyghurs, espionage, nuclear weapons research or hacking. Many of them have had links with Chinese universities carrying out military work. Twenty-one universities, including Cambridge, Sheffield, Leeds and Queen Mary University of London, are partnered with what is termed “very high-risk Chinese institutions”.

The reach of BGI into key areas of healthcare and scientific research should be of particular concern. Let me contrast the view of the National Counterintelligence and Security Centre in the USA with the answer given recently to a written parliamentary question asked by the hon. Member for Hornsey and Wood Green (Catherine West), in which Ministers stated that

“the genomics industry is not designated as critical national infrastructure in the UK”.

The truth of the matter is that genomics is playing a role not just in the advancement of science but in economic competition between the UK and our allies on the one hand and competitor states on the other. It is a new front in the defence of the realm.

As far as I am able to tell, there have been no cross-departmental discussions at Cabinet level about the involvement of China and its state-linked companies in the UK genomics and bionomics sector. That has got to change. We need much more proactive work, both within the Government and among the Government, industry and academia. We need to identify potential issues and put in place structures that will protect data privacy and ensure the proper use of genomic research.

If companies such as BGI are not prepared to submit to meaningful compliance audits, we have to stop treating them as if they are trusted partners. At the risk of stating the totally blindingly obvious, once data is shared, we cannot get it back. Although I welcome the Government’s moves last year, including the Trusted Research campaign, led by the CPNI, and the launch of the research collaboration advice team in the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy, those bodies need to be properly resourced and given proactive mandates to advise and support universities and others engaged in research in this area.

How do we start to turn this situation round within the limits of what is currently available to us? Other things can probably be done with the legislation that is currently going through the House, but what can we do with what is currently available? I suggest to the Minister that the most important step we can take is to bring the genomics industry within the definition of critical national infrastructure. That is defined as:

“Those critical elements of infrastructure (assets, facilities, systems, networks, or processes, and the essential workers who operate and facilitate them), the loss or compromise of which could result in (a) major detrimental impact and the availability, integrity, or delivery of essential services, including those services where integrity, if compromised, could result in significant loss of life or casualties—taking into account significant economic or social impacts; and/or (b) significant impact on national security, national defence, or the functioning of the state.”

It defies belief that genomics is not already included in that definition, and that the Government have apparently not even considered putting it in.

We need to start to scrutinise the work of Chinese genomics firms that are involved in the UK’s health and research sector in the same way that we currently scrutinise firms in areas such as defence technology, telecoms and CCTV surveillance. There must be no trade-off between research success and the promotion of our democratic values and adherence to standards of human rights. Just as the UK Government eventually opted not to allow Huawei access to our 5G critical infrastructure, they must now consider the threats to our national security of allowing BGI and other companies linked to competitor or hostile Governments to access our genomic data.

This is not the sexiest subject that we are going to find, and I suspect that it will not be raised on many doorsteps yet, but consider how the previous exercise in relation to data capture worked out, whereby people understood too late what they had been part of, and the concerns that that raised. This is an opportunity for the Government, just for once, to get ahead of the curve. I would like to hear from the Minister that he understands that and that work is going on within the Government to do exactly that.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Davies. I thank the right hon. Member for Orkney and Shetland (Mr Carmichael) for bringing this important issue to the House. He and I both know how important the subject is and that the Chamber is not full because of the business going on elsewhere. I reassure him that we take this issue very seriously. Some of things that we are doing are not in the public domain, for obvious reasons, but I will answer his questions. I agree with just about everything that he said, so we are very much on the same page.

Let me start, as the right hon. Gentleman did, by reminding listeners and viewers of what a success story British genomics has been, going right back to Watson and Crick’s famous pint in the Eagle in Cambridge—and, in this International Women’s Week and week of women’s science, let us not forget the third discoverer of DNA, the great Mary Black at King’s College London,[Official Report, 9 March 2023, Vol. 729, c. 1MC.] who often gets left out of the story—through the work that Fred Sanger and his team did at the University of Cambridge on the structure of DNA and how it works, and right up to our leadership in genetic research and medicine in the UK.

It is worth saying that that leadership is not just in human genomics but in animal and plant genomics. I was recently up in Scotland visiting the Roslin Institute and the James Hutton Institute. Across the UK, we have such an understanding of not only genomics across humans, animals and plants, and their diseases, but the application of those genomics to help to develop drought-resistant crops for Africa and disease-resistant crops that do not need to be sprayed with highly carbon-intensive pesticides. The underpinning technology is fundamental to net zero and global sustainability, to allowing agriculture in sub-Saharan Africa and to improving nutrition and health around the world. The front end now is cancer and rare disease, but the revolution in technology will drive sustainability and prosperity around the world over the coming decades.

I am delighted to respond to this debate, not least because, when I was the Minister for Life Science in the coalition Government, I had the great privilege of setting up Genomics England, which was our first big move to capture our leadership in this global race. I remind the House that we set up Genomics England very carefully as a reference library, not a lending library. Some 100,000 NHS volunteers and patients offered to be sequenced—it was not just the snip, which is the bit of DNA segment that we know is implicated in disease, but the whole of their genome. We could then look at whole-genome analysis at scale and link it to someone’s phenotype, life cycle and hospital records, and start to shine a light on the real insights into the mechanisms of disease. We might discover that men over the age of 55 with red hair, a beard and early-onset diabetes are more likely to respond to a particular drug than others. The work transforms not only the business of drug discovery but diagnosis, and it accelerates access for patients to treatments.

We originally focused GEL—Genomics England—on cancer and rare disease, which is where the appliance of genomics is most urgent and transformational, but we were clear that it was never going to be a lending library, so nobody would ever have access to an individual patient genome or an individual patient record. Researchers could interact with the database for the basis of research, but they would never be able to take out of the library any of the core data. I pay tribute to all the people at GEL, because in the 10 years since it was launched there have not been huge debates in Parliament or any scandals. People have not been marching up and down. In fact, thousands of NHS patients have happily enrolled and, through Biobank, we have taken the number of NHS volunteers to half a million. I pay tribute to the team behind that work. It is possible to build these datasets. We were absolutely clear that it was embedded in the values of the NHS: one for all, all for one, and shared data for national as well as personal good.

Alongside GEL, there is the UK Biobank, the National Institute for Health and Care Research BioResource, and now Our Future Health, which is looking at longitudinal datasets. We have not just done the deep science; we are building an ecosystem of genomically informed medical research and medicine in the NHS. I was particularly proud that we launched the NHS genomic medicine service. It is about not just science but research to drive better medicine in the NHS. In the NHS around the country, genomic medicine clinics are now accelerating access for researchers and patients.

The right hon. Member for Orkney and Shetland is right, as was the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon), that we are in a global race in so many of these technologies, and particularly in genomics. In my recent speeches, I have set out what we mean by being a science superpower. It is not just a glib phrase. I define it not just as, first, world-class science—and with two of the world’s top three universities, we are a world-class research centre. To be a science superpower we need, secondly, to go out and solve some of the problems in the world, not just study them; thirdly, to recognise that science is conducted in international, global career paths and put the UK at the hub of those networks; fourthly, to insist on attracting much more industrial research and development, to help to drive this country out of post-pandemic recession and get long-term investment; and fifthly, and crucially, to insist on and stand up for the values on which science is conducted: free speech, critical thinking, respect for intellectual property and respect for law, in a collaborative setting. That is true on our own campuses—we will never be a science superpower if we have a cancel culture calling out and preventing free speech—and is equally true internationally. We will not be a superpower unless we take a stand against other countries that aggressively use science and steal intellectual property.

I have put the research security agenda right at the heart of our definition. Here in the UK, in 2020 we set out the Genome UK 10-year genetic healthcare strategy, with £175 million for life-saving programmes around cancer and rare diseases. We have set out the UK biological security strategy, recognising exactly the points made by the right hon. Gentleman about biosecurity in an interconnected world. In the pandemic, we saw the cost of disease to the global economy, as well as to our own, and we glimpsed the value of health and strong health resilience. That is biosecurity in terms of human health, but we are also in a world in which more and more food products and animal products are transported, and where climate change is driving new patterns of migration in insects and animals. There is a growing threat of infectious disease—pathogen biosecurity—which is one of the issues that our new economic security cabinet has looked at. We have now refreshed our biological security strategy.

Research security is at the heart of our international collaborations. Last year, I signed an agreement with Sweden, and there is a similar one with Thailand. In my work internationally, at the G7 Science Ministers summit in Japan this year and at the G20, we have led in putting research security on the table internationally as a key issue that we must all work on.

I want to bring the Minister on to the point about BGI. I think we are aggressively agreeing with each other here, essentially because we are talking on parallel lines. Will he address the point about BGI and similar companies, and their need to comply or else be treated differently?

Absolutely; it is as if the right hon. Gentleman has read my notes.

Here in the UK, we are toughening up our regime. The National Institute for Health and Care Research has a set of very clear principles, as does UK Research and Innovation. We have set up the research collaboration advice team—RCAT—which is a new system to help all our researchers across the UK ecosystem with advice and support. We insist that they exercise due diligence if they sign a collaboration with, say, the “South China Sea research collaboration company”. We do not expect all our researchers to be policemen and women, but we do expect them—and they are now required—to show due diligence before they sign some lucrative research agreement.

We have set up RCAT as a specialist advisory group in the Cabinet Office, connected to our intelligence agencies, so that it can check quickly whether a partner is benign, hostile or dangerous.[Official Report, 14 March 2023, Vol. 729, c. 5MC.] That system has been working well since we set it up a year ago. The team is in the Cabinet Office, 350 queries have been handled, and we are getting international visits from people who congratulate us on getting it right, although a lot more remains to be done.

I reassure the right hon. Gentleman that we have an economic security cabinet, which I joined three weeks ago. It looks much more strategically and in granular detail across exposure to hostile actors in the UK economy. That includes everything from genomics to the biosecurity piece that I have discussed, along with semiconductors, space and cyber-security—the whole piece. We are now in a global race not just with our benign competitors but with hostile actors who wish to use science and technology to hold us back and undermine us, or to steal our science and technology for their own use.

BGI is clearly one of those danger points in the ecosystem. I share with the House the fact that, in 2014, I was wheeled out to give a speech on the occasion of the visit of President Xi to the Guildhall. When President Xi and then Prime Minister Cameron were wheeled in, I was speaking to around 1,000 Chinese delegates about Genomics England. I had been prepared to pay tribute to the work of BGI when my officials pointed out that at that point Genomics England was suffering several hack attacks from BGI each week.[Official Report, 9 March 2023, Vol. 729, c. 2MC.] That was a wake-up call for all of us.

We are well aware that we have to manage such risks properly. On that point, I commissioned and have literally just received from UKRI a detailed assessment of all the China research and innovation links across our system—we did the same last year for Russia. I have passed that through to my right hon. Friend the Minister for Security. He and I, and our officials, will go through it shortly in detail, looking in particular at some of the actors such as BGI that we know to be aggressive in their international acquisition of intellectual property.

I reassure the right hon. Member for Orkney and Shetland that we have put research security at the heart of discussions at the G7 and G20. If we are to harness science and technology for global good and to deliver that extraordinary opportunity of helping to feed, fuel and heal emerging populations safely, international collaboration will be required. However, we have to ensure that we defend not only the values of good and open science but our own economic security, and that we get the balance right. We do not want to conduct research only with our strong, strategic, military partners, but we want to defend our values.

The right hon. Gentleman made an interesting point about critical national infrastructure that I will pick up in the economic security cabinet. It is a point that I have made in connection with another bit of our science infrastructure. We all recognise that the threats now mean that we need to think about the value of other infrastructure. I will come back to him on that.

The right hon. Gentleman made an important broader point about how the Government handle data. It is fair to say that the pandemic revealed the best and the worst, in a way. The NHS put together the world’s biggest clinical trial—not just bigger than the next one but bigger than the next 10, and faster than any of them—which was an incredible operation, embedded in the values of the NHS, and it worked brilliantly. Equally, the clunkiness of some testing data feedback from different towns and regions held back some decisions. I think the role of data will be rightly highlighted in the covid review.

I am grateful to the right hon. Gentleman for bringing this subject to the House. I will come back to him on the CPNI point. I look forward to pursuing the subject with him in future.

Question put and agreed to.

Sitting suspended.