It appears as if Nevada may have dodged a viral bullet early in 2020 after federal officials warned the state not to use Chinese-made coronavirus test kits donated by the United Arab Emirates (UAE) over concerns of Chinese espionage and other nefarious activities.
In documents, made public through the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA,) show that the Trump administration acted to halt Nevada from participating in a project involving the Chinese firm BGI Group, a genetic sequencing company which continues to expanded its reach during the coronavirus pandemic. Along with its sale of tests, BGI has expanded into multiple countries by offering turnkey labs, which can reportedly analyze 10,000 to 50,000 tests a day.
It has since set up such labs in multiple Chinese cities and in countries like Angola, Australia, Brunei, Kazakhstan, Saudi Arabia, Serbia and Togo. One lab, established in Abu Dhabi in March, is said to have conducted over 11 million tests in the UAE, a nation of only nine million people.
BGI formed in 1999 as a state-backed lab to work on the Human Genome Project. And while BGI claims that it is no longer owned or funded by the Chinese government, a 2018 U.S. Trade Office report stated that the company has “evident links to the government” as its leadership includes individuals who previously held positions in the Chinese government and Communist Party.
In July, two BGI subsidiaries, Xinjiang Silk Road BGI and Beijing Liuhe BGI, were sanctioned by the U.S. Commerce Department for conducting genetic analyses to further the repression of Uighurs and other Muslim minorities in China.
“Beijing actively promotes the reprehensible practice of forced labor and abusive DNA collection and analysis schemes to repress its citizens,” said Secretary of Commerce Wilbur Ross. “This action will ensure that our goods and technologies are not used in the Chinese Communist Party’s despicable offensive against defenseless Muslim minority populations.”
Returning to Nevada, the proposed lab would have reportedly processed samples from polymerase chain reaction (PCR) tests, using long cotton swabs that collect samples from deep inside a person’s nose and throat. It must be noted that all of BGI labs must use the company’s proprietary equipment, which the U.S. fears could be a means of collecting the personal information of U.S. citizens by the Chinese government.
The Department of Homeland Security warned the Sisolak administration that China could all exploit these samples to discover the medical history, illnesses and genetic traits of test takers.
“I hope the Nevada COVID-19 task force leadership is aware of this so they can make an educated decision and know some of the U.S. Government’s concerns,” William Puff, a Homeland Security regional attaché at the U.S. Embassy in Abu Dhabi, wrote in an email forwarded to Nevada officials.
The warnings led the office of Nevada Gov. Steve Sisolak in April to direct University Medical Center (UMC) in Las Vegas not to use any of the donated 250,000 test kits as officials turned down an offered laboratory deal.
“Based on the information communicated to me by Homeland Security, we highly recommend that you discontinue these tests and any usage of testing equipment immediately,” Nevada governor’s chief of staff Michelle White wrote to UMC.
Unfortunately, UMC had already used 20,000 of the suspect specimen collection kits offered, but claim they didn’t use any of the donated 250,000 analysis kits. Meanwhile, a 25-year-old Washoe County man is confirmed to have contracted COVID-19 for a second time, with this bout with the illness more severe than the first.
The donation to Nevada also involved the UAE company, Group 42 (G42.) BGI however now claims that G42 made the donation on its own and without BGI’s knowledge and that it never had direct contact with the state.
In April, the UAE announced through G42, its interest in donating an estimated $20 million worth of coronavirus testing kits to the state. The offer came as Nevada was struggling with a growing number of COVID-19 cases and a shortage of test kits.
UAE leadership, both political and business, have long seen Las Vegas as an investment opportunity. In 2007, in its largest investment, state-owned Dubai World partnered with MGM Resorts to build Las Vegas’ $9.2 billion multi-resort CityCenter development.
In March, former MGM chairman Jim Murren was appointed by Sisolak to be Nevada’s COVID-19 Response, Relief and Recovery Task Force chairman as part of a public-private partnership to seek funding and aid for the state. Also in late March, Murren forwarded to the governor’s office an email from Peng Xiao, CEO of G42, pitching the Chinese company’s desire to help.
Murren wrote that the UAE made the offer “both as a public service and because they see this as a future investment opportunity for them,” adding, “They have unlimited capital and would be incredibly flexible on terms – I will handle that part.”
Murren said the initial G42 proposal was to set up a “turn-key,” or ‘ready-to-use’ lab designed to process COVID-19 tests as in other nations.
Days after G42 announced its offer of aid to Nevada, the U.S. government made known its concerns with Nevada. In an email sent to state officials on April 20, Puff raised concerns about the potential risks of Americans sharing medical samples with BGI.
“The embassy has concerns with G42’s relationship with the Chinese government and BGI, and patient privacy concerns,” Puff wrote. “The guidance we received from the U.S. Department of State is we should decline testing from G42.”
In May, the U.S. National Counterintelligence and Security Center issued a warning to state health officials about the “potential threats posed by foreign powers in connection with COVID tests.” It did not specify BGI, though it did link to a news report on Israel’s largest health care plan declining to work with BGI.
In June, a Washington Post article reported that California’s health agencies had decided to avoid the offer made by BGI to that state. The report claimed that the decision was taken on the advice of the state’s coronavirus test task force advisers, in part because of concerns over China gaining access to private patient information.
Officials at G42 have refused to identify who owns the company, though many suspect it links back to Abu Dhabi’s ruling family. G42’s CEO, Peng Xiao, previously ran Abu Dhabi-based firm DarkMatter, which can pool hours of surveillance video to solely track any one person. The company has also hired a number of former CIA and National Security Agency analysts.
Finally, among G42’s marketing and communications staff is Giacomo Ziani, the creator of the video and voice calling app, TikTok, owned by ByteDance and based in Beijing, which is suspected of being a spy tool used by the UAE. The app was the subject of a possible Trump administration ban in September based on the concern that it can be used as an espionage tool.
Since the warning not to use the Chinese-linked COVID-19 test kits was issued, much of Nevada’s business operations have begun reopening, albeit very limited. Furthermore, COVID-19 testing is now widely available, with more than 1.1 million tests for COVID-19 performed and more than 85,000 cases involving1,600 deaths.
Reporters Note Book
Two things when this story first broke: first, the national media seemed far more concerned that the Trump administration had interfered with Nevada’s COVID response than the possibility that the tests kits might be dangerous. Secondly, the first attempt at reaching Gov. Siskolak’s office for comment lead to an entire day of searching for a spokesperson.
Unfortunately, for a supposed ‘transparent’ governance there are no phone number’s readily available to call the Governor’s office or staff. So resorting to email, one was sent to Sisolak’s Chief of Staff Michelle White on Oct. 15, and again on Oct. 19.
Both were responded to within minutes with an ‘automatic reply.’
After the second email was sent, a response from Meghin Delaney was received, reading, “You may direct all press inquiries for the Governor’s Office to me, as the communications director for Gov. Sisolak.”
So, within minutes an email was sent to Ms. Delaney.
The email to Delaney read, “What has become of the Chinese/UAE COVID-19 test kits? Were they returned? Destroyed? Are they sitting on a shelf some where?”
That was Oct 19. It is now Oct. 29 and still no response from the Governor’s office, and yet the question remains the same, “Where are the 250K unused test kits?”
Additionally, the questions of “How can the public be sure that they are not being used?”, “Based on the lack of response, is the Sisolak administration hiding something they don’t want people to know?” and finally, “What part of the 20K collection kits did UMC use and were any of those tested with these collection kits harmed or died as a result?”
In light of Hunter Biden’s laptop and the Chinese connection, is this a wider problem in the U.S. than simply Nevada? The gut says yes.