Senate bill would limit federal contracts with foreign-linked biotech firms

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The legislation from Sen. Gary Peters, D-Mich., comes after he objected to a more focused provision in the House-passed National Defense Authorization Act that sought to limit government contracts with one specific Chinese biotech company.

A leading Democratic senator introduced legislation this week that would identify and prevent biotechnology companies “that pose a threat to U.S. national security” from receiving federal contracts over concerns about hostile nations gaining access to Americans’ medical and genetic data.

The Safeguarding American Genetic Data Act was introduced on Monday by Sen. Gary Peters, D-Mich., the chairman of the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee.

Peters’ legislation would require that relevant federal agencies make a determination within 180 days of the bill’s enactment as to whether or not specific companies with ties to foreign nations should be banned from receiving government contracts “based on existing threat information and known problematic business practices.”

Federal officials would also be required to develop and implement regulations prohibiting agencies “from procuring or obtaining biotechnology equipment and services from companies of concern,” and examine whether similar prohibitions should extend to federal grant recipients.

“As the biotechnology sector becomes more prominent in everyday life, the threats posed by biotech companies controlled by adversaries, like the Chinese government, loom larger.” Peters said in a statement. “My bill will protect Americans’ personal health and genetic information from foreign adversaries who have the ability and motivation to undermine our national security.”

Peters’ office noted that many foreign entities that pose a potential security risk to the U.S. have already been added to the Commerce Department’s entity list, but said that “adversaries often seek ways to get around these restrictions, and a more comprehensive strategic approach to addressing these threats is needed.”

Lawmakers and other federal officials have warned about the risks posed by companies with ties to adversarial foreign powers acquiring Americans’ genetic and medical information, citing their potential use for economic and military exploitation by hostile nations. 

A more targeted provision that was included in the House-passed National Defense Authorization Act would prohibit the federal government “from acquiring genetic sequencing equipment from Beijing Genomics Institute (BGI) and its subsidiaries.” A Reuters investigation published in 2021 claimed that the Chinese gene company was working with the People's Liberation Army and other military entities and was collecting “genetic data from millions of women for sweeping research on the traits of populations.”

The National Review reported last month that Peters held up that provision’s inclusion in the conference text of the must-pass defense policy bill over concerns about its effective implementation. A spokesperson for the senator said at the time that he planned to introduce a more comprehensive proposal.