Netherlands working with China in DNA research; Experts concerned

AMSTERDAM - Three top Dutch laboratories have been working together with Chinese scientists to develop sensitive DNA techniques for years, RTL Nieuws and Follow the Money reported based on their research. Experts are concerned about this cooperation.

RTL and FTM looked at 20 scientific publications predicting body characteristics based on a DNA profile and facial recognition techniques. Some of the studies looked at mapping family ties. 

The Netherlands uses such techniques to find suspects of murder and rape using DNA trace evidence. But China, a country known for not always respecting human rights, can also use these techniques to suppress and persecute minorities like Uyghurs and Tibetans.

In the studies, Erasmus MC, Leiden University Medical Center (LUMC), and the Netherlands Forensic Institute (NFI) worked with Chinese researchers who have indirect and even direct contact with the Chinese Ministry of Public Security - the police in the country. Some of the researchers are paid or employed by the Chinese police, according to FTM and RTL.

Seven studies used DNA from Uyghur people, three of whom had their blood drawn by the Ministry of Public Security's forensic service. Two of those studies recently got rejected on "ethical grounds" - it was unclear whether the Uyghur people donated the blood voluntarily. Erasmus MC said it saw documents showing that the Uyghurs voluntarily donated DNA samples in the other cases. 

Professor Yves Moreau of the University of Leuven, who investigates scientists who work with the Chinese police, called the cooperation between Dutch labs and such scientists "fundamentally wrong." Moreau pointed out that statements of consent in practice mean little in China. He said the ethics committees in the country have very different rules than those used in the west. 

In response, Erasmus MC told RTL that it sees no problem collaborating with Chinese researchers because the knowledge resulting from the studies it is involved in cannot be used for facial recognition and identifying Uyghurs. Erasmus MC said it only works with scientists affiliated with Chinese universities and not the Chinese police. The Rotterdam medical center added that it already stopped using Uyghur DNA as a precaution, even though it doesn't see anything wrong with doing so. 

In a 2018 study in which the NFI participated, DNA from Dutch people was compared to DNA from Uyghur people. The NFI told RTL that it was not aware that the study included DNA from Uyghur people. The institute denied collaborating with Chinese researchers, saying it only made a contribution at the request of Erasmus MC.

LUMC contributed to four studies, including two with Chinese researchers who worked for the Chinese police and one that compared the DNA of Uyghur people with the DNA of Dutch. LUMC told RTL that it was not involved in close collaboration with the Chinese researchers.

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