Britain may designate genomics sector as critical infrastructure

By Alistair Smout

LONDON (Reuters) – Britain is exploring designating its genomics sector as critical national infrastructure, Deputy Prime Minister Oliver Dowden said on Monday, amid pressure from lawmakers concerned at China’s activity in the field.

Genomics is the study of the genome – the complete set of DNA contained within a single cell.

A Reuters investigation in 2021 found that China’s BGI Group had developed prenatal tests in collaboration with the Chinese military and used them to collect genetic data from women around the world for research on the traits of populations.

BGI says it has never shared data for national security purposes and has never been asked to.

Earlier this year, UK lawmakers wrote to the country’s data regulator asking it to probe BGI, citing the Reuters investigation, while campaigners have also written to the government to ask for an inquiry into its links with British universities.

Asked by one of those lawmakers if Britain would designate the genomics sector as critical national infrastructure, Dowden said it was a legitimate point which he was considering.

“It’s not currently designated as such, but in my role in the cabinet office, I keep the register of critical national infrastructure under review, and it’s something which I am exploring,” he told lawmakers.

Critical national infrastructure (CNI) is infrastructure that, if compromised, could have a major detrimental impact on essential services or a significant impact on national security.

A CNI designation can see greater scrutiny of how contracts and research are handled in a sector.

Dowden defended the government’s broader record on CNI, citing steps such as the passage of the National Security and Investment Act, which has seen the government intervene to block takeovers in sensitive sectors by Chinese firms.

(Reporting by Alistair Smout; Editing by Mark Potter)