Fearmongering about China diminishes American life sciences competitiveness

Exaggerated fears about Chinese bio-spying threaten to erode American competitiveness

No country has ever spied its way into technological superiority. The Soviet Union tried mightily and failed miserably.

This lesson is relevant at a time when members of Congress are making unsubstantiated allegations about Chinese operatives infiltrating American labs to advance a conspiracy to achieve global domination.

The stakes of thinking clearly about threats and benefits from global collaboration are high. It is impossible for any country to steal American preeminence in the life sciences, but the U.S. could lose its lead by forcing or incentivizing great scientists and entrepreneurs to work elsewhere.

The U.S. has had a long ride as the life sciences leader, but with the rise of China there’s going to be another center of gravity. Instead of chasing away foreign researchers, America should be thinking about ways to entice them to come and to stay. Politicians who attribute the rise of China’s life sciences industry to imaginary spies and nefarious plots are on the wrong track.

Politicians like Sens. John Cornyn (R-Texas) and Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa) are throwing around incendiary accusations about a large-scale Chinese government conspiracy against U.S. biomedical research.

Grassley and Cornyn have expressed frustration that the Trump administration hasn’t taken more aggressive steps. They want the White House to reduce the numbers of foreign, especially Chinese, scientists who study and work in the U.S., and to limit Chinese investment in American companies. And they are trying to justify legislation that achieves these goals.

As Chairman of the Finance Committee, Grassley wields a great deal of power. He represents a state where pork and corn interests have far more clout than academic or industrial biomedical researchers.

Perhaps that is why he doesn’t understand that NIH’s remit is to develop science for the public good using taxpayer money. It is not in the business of creating secrets. Science has to be transparent and shared globally to advance. 

Accusations of Chinese government plots create a climate of fear in which “doing science while Chinese” has become grounds for suspicion.

At a recent hearing on foreign threats to NIH-funded research, Grassley alleged that some Chinese researchers in the U.S. are “spies, and their only purpose is to infiltrate taxpayer-funded research projects to steal intellectual property and bring it to their home country.” He provided no evidence to support this extraordinary claim. Nor did he explain what these “spies” are doing with the fruits of their espionage. Are they going to exploit scientific discoveries faster than American scientists can?

Similarly, Cornyn cited no data for his statement, made at the hearing about foreign threats to NIH-funded research, that “China’s aggressive plan to dominate the United States economically, militarily and technologically includes the willingness to use whatever means are necessary, legal or not, overt or covert, to achieve its goals.”

Another senator, Marco Rubio (R-Fla.), has also fanned the flames with rhetoric that is untethered from evidence or common sense.

In remarks on the Senate floor in May 2018, Rubio suggested that entities in China could develop a cure for Alzheimer’s and then wield it as a weapon against America.

“Can you imagine living in a world where the cure to Alzheimer’s is controlled by Chinese pharmaceutical companies -- the amount of leverage it would give them geopolitically?” he asked his colleagues.

And he said China could achieve this goal not by “out hustling” American researchers, but “by stealing what we produce.”

Rubio is serious about the idea that discovery and manufacture of drugs in China poses a threat to America. On June 19, he introduced an amendment that seeks to block the U.S. military from purchasing pharmaceuticals or pharmaceutical ingredients made in China (see “Rubio Wants to Block U.S. Military from Buying Drugs Made in China”).

Sen. Steve Daines (R-Mont.) is espousing the idea that China aims to weaponize health data. At the recent hearing he said the Chinese government has been “active in obtaining access to healthcare and genomic data on U.S. persons which not only allows them to drive new discoveries by analyzing large datasets, but also creates risks of blackmail and potential exploitation.”

Accusations of Chinese government plots create a climate of fear in American universities in which “doing science while Chinese” has become grounds for suspicion.

NIH seems to be walking a tight rope, trying to avoid antagonizing politicians who are portraying China as a ruthless enemy while avoiding actions that stigmatize researchers based on national origin.

Lawrence Tabak, NIH principal deputy director, told Grassley at the Finance Committee hearing that the threat posed by illegal foreign activities is “relatively small, but the problem is important” (see “Conflicts Over Scale”). 

Credible allegations of wrongdoing must be investigated and punished.

NIH investigations have led to a handful of terminations and resignations of Chinese scientists who were accused of failing to disclose foreign funding.

American scientists who were born in, or whose relatives emigrated from China, believe they are being unfairly targeted by NIH and especially by the FBI, according to comments made privately to BioCentury, as well as in public forums.

Tabak said NIH is also concerned about the disclosure of proprietary information included in grant applications or produced by NIH-supported biomedical research, as well as failures of peer reviewers to keep data in grant applications confidential.

Certainly, scientists with ties to China should not be given a free pass to violate laws or scientific norms. Credible allegations of wrongdoing must be investigated and punished.

The kinds of malfeasance that have been uncovered do not, however, constitute a systemic threat to American science or industry, nor do they justify attempts to cast a shadow over all scientists with personal or professional links to China.

The cries of alarm are ironic because they are coming at a time when demands to slash NIH budgets -- which pose a far greater threat to scientific progress than Chinese “spies” -- are coming from the White House, not from Beijing. The Chinese government has learned from the U.S.; China’s rise as a force in the life sciences is a result of billions of dollars in investment and forward-looking policies.

On its face, Rubio’s suggestion is ridiculous -- that China could steal American technology and use it to develop life-saving medicines that it would withhold for geopolitical leverage. These kind of assertions have real consequences, however, and they extend beyond basic research. They help the Trump administration and its supporters in Congress make the case for dramatically reducing Chinese investment in U.S. life sciences companies.

The Committee on Foreign Investment in the United States (CFIUS) has already forced the Chinese company iCarbonX Inc. to divest an investment in the online patient platform PatientsLikeMe and reportedly scuttled a Chinese investment in Momenta Pharmaceuticals Inc. (see “CFIUS Drawing Line In Sand On Personal Data” and “CFIUS Influence May Have Prompted Momenta’s Restructuring”).

Concerns about the security of healthcare data are legitimate. Stronger controls are needed to ensure that corporations or governments cannot inappropriately access sensitive information, but the risks are similar when it comes to investments from companies based in Beijing or Boston from Facebook, Google, Tencent or Alibaba.

China should be applauded for its successes in the life sciences. Scientific advances and medicines developed there will benefit the entire world, and commercial competition will make companies based in the U.S. stronger.

Companies and Institutions Mentioned

iCarbonX Inc. (Shenzhen, China)

Momenta Pharmaceuticals Inc. (NASDAQ:MNTA), Cambridge, Mass.

PatientsLikeMe Inc., Cambridge, Mass.

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