The High Price of DNA
In a desolate courtyard surrounded by barbed wire, countless individuals are seated uniformly, their identical jumpsuits merging them into an indistinguishable mass. Stripped of visible uniqueness, it’s their DNA that holds the secrets of their identity. For many, this very DNA led to their confinement in reeducation camps. This is the grim reality in Xinjiang, where the Chinese Communist Party wages its campaign against Uyghur Muslims and anyone else deemed a threat to the authoritarian state. Astonishingly, our DNA may inadvertently abet these human rights abuses.
As the Biden administration champions the expansion of the U.S. bioeconomy, there’s an underlying cost—compromising the security of our DNA and associated data. While the goal is noble—to position the U.S. at the forefront of global biotechnology and biomanufacturing—the current approach, advocating international data sharing, poses risks. Genetic sequencing, often outsourced to save costs, stands at the crux of this debate. To shield Americans, it’s imperative to recalibrate our strategy—foster domestic DNA sequencing capabilities, implement robust data protection measures, and assure U.S. leadership in biotechnology.
Sharing American DNA data and other biometrics puts Americans at risk. Genetic data can be used to identify individuals—often without their consent—through blood, saliva, skin samples, and biometrics. Giving DNA data to foreign governments puts Americans abroad at risk of being identified and subjected to violence, detention, or persecution. Worse yet, there are currently no policies limiting the distribution of U.S. genetic data from the private sector or private citizens to foreign governments.
American genetic diversity enables foreign governments to develop their biotech industries, eroding U.S. global biotech leadership. China, for example, aims to become a global leader in the pharmaceutical industry. American genetic data allows China, which is over 90% ethnically Han Chinese, to develop pharmaceuticals for diverse global markets and expand its economy.
American genetic diversity also enables foreign governments with homogenous genetic populations to identify rare traits in their populace and persecute those individuals. Consider cystic fibrosis, a rare genetic disease for which 1 in 30 Americans are a carrier. In China, only around 200 patients of Chinese descent have been identified with cystic fibrosis since 1993. Using American DNA samples containing cystic fibrosis cases, China can better identify those carrying the gene and notify employers and healthcare providers. Those people could then be denied jobs and appropriate healthcare due to the cost and burden of treatment. Similarly, regarding the Uyghurs, American DNA samples—many from Turkic people—are used to identify Turkic genes in Chinese DNA samples and send those identified to prison.
Developing the domestic DNA sequencing industry will create thousands of skilled jobs, grow the economy, and solidify American global economic leadership. It will also attract foreign investment and increase the U.S. share of the global biotech industry, which is projected to grow to $10 trillion by 2030.
Developing and employing the domestic DNA sequencing industry both reduces foreign influence and protects citizen privacy. Domestic industry protects American data within companies that are regulated by the U.S. government as opposed to organizations linked to foreign militaries and autocracies. Furthermore, regulation for employing domestic industry would fall on corporations—citizens would not be affected. For those utilizing at-home genealogy tests, for example, DNA samples can be collected, processed, and results can be provided with no impact on customers. Yet, behind the scenes, data is processed in the U.S. and remains secure from bad actors.
Embarking on this journey has its costs. While the immediate implications might mean steeper prices for consumers, one must remember that the cost trajectory of sequencing a human genome has seen an astronomical dip—from a billion dollars two decades ago to a mere $100 today. With the biotech industry’s value projected to skyrocket, the scales tip favorably towards a hefty return on investment.
In the impending era, bioeconomies will dictate the world order, with DNA as the cornerstone. Safeguarding it transcends mere financial prudence—it’s a commitment to the safety of global citizens, be it Americans or Uyghur Muslims. Ensuring the sanctity of our genetic data today is a stride towards a more secure tomorrow.