For years now, researchers of the Chinese police have been using products of Qiagen, a biotech company based in the Netherlands, in controversial studies involving the DNA of Uyghurs and Tibetans. This became apparent from an investigation by Follow the Money. Qiagen denies any knowledge of misuse, but did apply for a certificate so that the Chinese police could use their products.
On 30 September 2019, the Netherlands Forensic Institute announced good news: one of its employees has won the Young Investigator Award. This international prize, which is awarded for the first time, goes to Margreet van den Berge. She won $40,000, new equipment and chemicals.
The young scientist was chosen because of her pioneering research into mixed traces of blood or semen. Previously, it was impossible to determine which perpetrators were involved in a gang rape, for example, because of the mixture of traces in such cases. Van den Berge developed a method to identify all individual semen traces.
The NFI press release stated that the Young Investigator Award is an initiative of Qiagen nv, a supplier of laboratory supplies. The press release did not mention anything about the jury.
Qiagen’s website does name the judges. Two of the seven are from China. Yingnan Bian is vice-president of the Department of Forensic Biology of the Academy of Forensic Science, which falls under the Ministry of Justice in Shanghai. Jiangwei Yan is a professor at the School of Forensic Medicine. He worked in the forensics department of the Beijing Police from 1997 to 2007 and was given a prestigious award for his police work. He also received a state grant under the Ten Thousand Talents Programme of Beijing. The Chinese government set up this programme in 2008 to attract leading scientists, including foreign scientists. It is part of China’s ambition to become a leader in the field of state-of-the-art technology.
In China, Qiagen’s customers are not limited to hospitals and institutes but also include police forensic researchers
Why were two scientists who are part of the Chinese police force acting as jury members for an award from a Dutch company?
Qiagen’s international headquarters have been located in Venlo, in the South of the Netherlands, on Hulsterweg since 1996. Although the company is governed by Dutch laws and regulations, Qiagen is effectively a German-American company with an important branch in China, an substantial sales market. Along with countries such as Brazil and South Korea, it belongs to the category of emerging markets that accounted for 15 per cent of Qiagen’s total sales in 2020.
In China, customers are not limited to hospitals and institutes but also include police forensic researchers. They use Qiagen’s equipment for, among other things, research to derive external characteristics from DNA. This process is called phenotyping: using a DNA trace to determine a person’s observable physical characteristics, such as origin, gender, height, skin colour, eye colour and type, and other facial features. The technology can be used to solve crimes, but experts warn against its misuse by autocratic and totalitarian regimes – such as the Chinese government.
Qiagen – initially: Diagen, presumably an abbreviation of diagnostic genetics – was founded on 29 November 1984 by a group of scientists from the Heinrich Heine University in Düsseldorf, Germany. Two years later, the company launched its first product.
The company established its headquarters in The Netherlands in 1997. In 2005, Qiagen bought the Chinese company Shenzhen PG Biotech. Two years later, it entered into a joint venture with biotech company Maccura in China.
Through a series of acquisitions, Qiagen has grown into one of the largest biotech companies globally and now employs over 5300 people in 35 companies in more than 25 countries. Qiagen’s main production facilities are in China, Germany and the United States. Its shares are traded on the New York and Frankfurt stock exchanges.
In 2020, competitor Thermo Fisher wanted to take over the company for $11 billion. However, the shareholders thought that the Americans’ offer was too low. They subsequently rejected a higher bid as well.
In October 2020, Qiagen invested more than €110 million to expand production capacity for corona testing at various locations, including in Hilden, Germany.
Qiagen develops and produces a range of products for biotechnological tests on both humans and animals. Their DNA tests (kits) for hereditary or forensic research are highly regarded. They are used in hospitals and institutes and seem popular with researchers within the Chinese criminal investigation department.
In recent months, Follow the Money investigated a series of publications by Chinese forensic scientists. Many of them seem to have used Qiagens products in their research. A small selection:
In March 2016, fourteen Chinese scientists published a study in the International Journal of Legal Medicine on the genetic structure of Uyghurs, the Turkish-Muslim minority group in Xinjiang Province, northern China. One of the authors works for the police in Xinjiang. A second works for the forensic institute of the Bingtuan, another name for the Xinjiang Production and Construction Corps. This state paramilitary organisation is responsible for the repression of Uyghurs and for the construction of their comprehensive surveillance system that monitors Xinjiang residents day and night.
In February 2018, ten scientists published a genetic study on Tibetans in the same journal. They wanted to find out how Tibetans are able to live in thin air at high altitudes. All the researchers are attached to police forensic institutes. One of them, Caixia Li, is the chief forensic scientist of the Ministry of Public Security in China.
In April 2019, a study by seven Chinese scientists was published, yet again in the same journal. They looked at whether, and if so how, you can predict adult height based on the DNA of various Euro-Asian population groups. All the authors have ties to the police force. One of them, Mi Ma, works for the Xinjiang Construction and Production Corps mentioned earlier. Caixia Li is also one of the authors, as is Liu Fan, who works at the Erasmus Medical Centre; FTM has previously reported on his research.
This and a series of other studies were the subject of a major scientific controversy in December 2019. It was sparked by Yves Moreau, professor of engineering at the Catholic University of Leuven. Moreau warned in the scientific journal Nature about the misuse of DNA technology, particularly in China. Whereas in Western countries, the use of DNA profiles by police forces has to comply with numerous laws and regulations, the Chinese police are, in practice, bound by few rules.
Daniel Sprick, a German expert on Chinese criminal law, previously told FTM that the role of the Chinese police and the functioning of the criminal law process differs from that in Germany or the Netherlands, for example. ‘The Chinese system is not based on checks and balances that subject the actions of the police to all sorts of laws and regulations. Police, prosecutors and the judiciary tend to work closely together to maintain social stability in the country.’
Accordingly, the conviction rate in China is extremely high. In 2019, the probability of a defendant being convicted was 99.65 per cent.
Can one really speak of informed consent in studies that involve the Chinese police?
The studies mentioned above – like many others – invariably state that the DNA was taken with the consent of the Uyghurs and Tibetans. But can one really speak of informed consent in studies that involve the Chinese police, Moreau wondered. Meanwhile, numerous reports indicate widespread repression of the Uyghurs in China. Several parliaments, including the Lower House, have even characterised China’s actions as genocide.
Canadian anthropologist Darren Byler, who has studied Uyghur culture for many years, previously told FTM that consent was not voluntary: ‘In most cases, Uyghurs do not read and understand Chinese well enough to give informed consent. Without such consent being documented in the Uyghur language, I would not consider their consent as having been given. Besides this, other scientists have shown that even if consent is given in the Uyghur language, participants in medical examinations in China usually assume that participation is mandatory.’
The commotion led the editorial board of the International Journal of Legal Medicine to add a so-called note of concern to a series of published studies. They reported that doubts had arisen whether the participants had in fact consented to their blood being taken. The scientists now had to prove that the subjects had indeed participated voluntarily.
In September, Follow the Money exposed that two articles to which Liu Fan of the Erasmus Medical Centre had contributed, had been retracted by the journal on ethical grounds. This is quite rare in the scientific world.
Meanwhile, four more studies by Chinese forensic scientists have received such a note of concern. At least six have since been retracted. In all these studies, Qiagen kits were used to extract DNA from the blood samples.
Qiagen says it is not aware of ‘misuse of our products’. The company serves its customers in China through a network of distributors. These customers are hospitals, universities and ‘other institutions often linked to the government’. ‘These customers do not share with us (and sometimes are not allowed to share) the purpose for which they use our products,’ says Qiagen.
In October 2020, the Centre for Research on Multinational Corporations (Dutch: SOMO) published an extensive report on Qiagen. SOMO showed that the biotech giant has set up a network of letterbox companies in European tax havens Ireland, Luxembourg and Malta, in order to avoid tax through internal loans. SOMO estimates that the company has evaded €93 million in taxes since 2010 and accumulated a tax deduction of €49 million. However, SOMO states that this is a conservative estimate: not all potential avoidance structures have been investigated.
SOMO also found out that Qiagen received public funding, amonst others from the Netherlands and the United States, to develop a Covid-19 test kit, including from the Netherlands and the United States.
In February, Minister Hugo de Jonge wrote in response to parliamentary questions from the SP that the Netherlands would not purchase rapid tests from Qiagen. Furthermore, due to the tax secrecy obligation, he was not permitted to say anything about the tax constructions that SOMO had uncovered. In response to whether Qiagen has its headquarters in the Netherlands for tax reasons, De Jonge replied: ‘The government has no insight into an individual company’s motives to establish itself in the Netherlands.’
Websites of Chinese distributors show that the Chinese police are a major buyer of Qiagens products. The forensic kits are for sale on webshops dealing in police supplies. Here, among the plastic gloves and hoops for training police dogs, the Investigator 26plex QS Kit is being promoted.
In a brochure, Qiagen recommends this kit as a product suitable for use by all Chinese databases. The brochure is from September 2019. The timing is remarkable: two years earlier, in May and December 2017, ngo Human Rights Watch exposed a massive DNA database that the Chinese authorities had started in 2000. At the end of 2017, it contained 40 million profiles of dissidents, immigrants and Muslim minorities such as the Uyghurs. Most were not suspected of anything, let alone convicted. A 2020 Australian report stated that the database now contains over 100 million profiles, possibly as many as 140 million.
With these DNA techniques, China is taking its Orwellian system to a genetic level, warned Sophie Richardson, China director of Human Rights Watch in 2017: ‘Mass DNA collection by the powerful Chinese police absent effective privacy protections or an independent judicial system is a perfect storm for abuses.’
In 2019, Qiagen described the 26plex kit as its ‘first forensic identification product specifically for the Chinese population’
Sociologist Mark Munsterhjelm from the University of Windsor in Canada has been researching the role of science and technology in racism and the repression of indigenous people, such as the Uyghurs, for years. He argues that these databases are being used for genetic profiling: ‘It is part of the overall biometric infrastructure that is being built under Xi Jinping.’
In response to questions from FTM, Qiagen says its forensic kits are not designed for ‘population screening’ but for individual cases and the identification of victims. However, according to Yves Moreau, there is a fine line between population screenings and individual screenings.
For example, in July 2014, six scientists from the Ministry of Justice’s Institute of Forensic Science published a study on Qiagens Investigator DIPlex kit. They used DNA from Han and She (the smallest minority in China). Here, population screening was used to conclude that the Qiagen kit can be very useful in establishing a person’s identity.
Chinese intermediaries do not seem to distinguish between individual research and mass surveillance. According to several websites, the 26plex Kit was ‘specifically designed’ to meet the testing needs of the Chinese police and the requirements of DNA databases.
The formulation of Chinese intermediaries did not appear out of thin air: Qiagen stresses that the kit is tailored explicitly for Chinese forensic use. In a 2019 New Year’s advertisement, the company described the 26plex Kit as ‘Qiagen’s first forensic identification product specifically for DNA loci of the Chinese population’.
Qiagen is doing its best to promote its forensic (police) products. In 2017, it managed to get the ‘China Public Safety Product certificate’ for the Investigator 24plex QS and the Investigator IDplex plus. As a result, these products are approved for police forensics throughout China.
Presently, there are kits of Chinese origin on the market that compete with Qiagen and Thermo Fisher kits. Qiagen is thus under pressure to secure its market position in China. Perhaps this explains why, in 2017, the company presented awards to Chinese DNA scientists willing to include their forensic kits in comparative research.
Mark Munsterhjelm submits that Qiagen’s products play an essential role in the development of forensic genetic research in China. For example, he found eight patents and patent applications from the Ministry of Public Security. Back in February 2013, the ministry had already applied for a patent on a method to derive genetic information from the Han, Tibetan and Uyghur populations, which can be used to identify an unknown individual. Qiagen products played an important role in the underlying research.
In February 2019, The New York Times reported that China is using Western DNA technology to monitor its population. The newspaper did not mention Qiagen, but it did mention Thermo Fisher, who sold its DNA tests directly to Xinjiang authorities. According to tender documents, some of this was earmarked for the police.
Shortly after that article first appeared, Thermo Fisher announced that it would stop selling in Xinjiang because the purpose for which the Chinese were using it went against the company’s ‘values, ethical code and policies’. Last June, however, The New York Times revealed that the Xinjiang government was still buying Thermo Fisher products.
Qiagen is aware of the ‘general discussions around DNA collections from Uyghurs without their prior consent’ but is ‘not aware of the misuse of our products’
In response to questions from Follow the Money about the use of their products, Qiagen replied that it is aware of the ‘general discussions around DNA collections from Uyghurs without their prior consent’ but that it is ‘not aware of the misuse of our products’.
This is remarkable. From 2012 until now, Follow the Money found dozens of studies by Chinese forensic researchers that clearly state which Qiagen products they used. It follows that Qiagen must have missed all these scientific articles as well as the fuss about the involvement of Western companies in China’s DNA technology.
Although Qiagen continues to operate in China, the company says it is committed to taking action: ‘What we can and will do is block those scientists and institutes engaged in such practices. We will ask our distributors to implement the same measure.’
‘This is important and newsworthy,’ says Yves Moreau. However, he fears that Qiagen will restrict itself to only blocking scientists whose articles have been retracted. ‘But it is good news. The statement about involving distributors is also important. Qiagen can incorporate the ban in its contractual obligations, but that could cause problems with the Chinese government. It could result in some interesting situations.’