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Complete Genomics CEO rebuts warnings of national security risks

In a letter to employees, sequencing company Complete Genomics chief executive Cliff Reid predicts that the acquisition of his company by Chinese sequencing giant BGI will win approval by national security regulators and be completed by the end of March in 2013.

Back in September, the companies announced a US$118-million agreement under which Complete Genomics, which has a proprietary technology for sequencing human genomes, would become a subsidiary of BGI, with staff and facilities to remain in Mountain View, California. In a spurned counter-offer, Illumina, based in San Diego, California, presented itself as a better suitor to Complete Genomics, predicting that a deal with BGI would be blocked by the part of the US Treasury Department that oversees foreign investment in the United States (see ‘Illumina, BGI spar over Complete Genomics‘).

Reid countered that Illumina’s proposal to acquire Complete Genomics was unlikely to get past antitrust regulators because Illumina dominates the sequencing market.

Reid’s letter came on the same day as an editorial in the San Jose Mercury News urging the committee on foreign investment to carefully scrutinize BGI’s acquisition of Complete Genomics for its impact on jobs and potential to advance bioweapons.

Reid noted in his letter that BGI already owns Illumina sequencing machines, and Illumina itself has a Chinese subsidiary selling directly to Chinese customers.

The editorial, by Michael Wessel and Larry Wortzel, two members of the United States–China Economic and Security Review Commission, an advisory group appointed by the US Congress, referred to a speculative scenario, described in the Atlantic, in which a virus engineered to kill a specific individual can be ordered online for $500. The authors go on to note that North Korea, Pakistan and Iran might all be willing to pay Chinese scientists from BGI for such projects.

The ability to design and synthesize a viral assassin would require technologies that go far, far beyond that required to sequence a human genome. Drew Endy, a synthetic biologist at Stanford University in California, says that the Atlantic article reads like science fiction, at least for now. “I was shocked to see it published in that venue.”

Asked by Nature how worried he is that Complete Genomics’ technology could be used for bioweapons, Wessel says: “The capabilities described in the Atlantic article might seem like science fiction, but so did the prospect of the Stuxnet-type virus just a couple of years ago.” (Stuxnet is a sophisticated computer worm that infected and disrupted machines used by Iran to refine uranium.)

The United States–China Economic and Security Review Commission has taken no position on the transaction, Wessel says. “These concerns deserve to be strictly scrutinized by CFIUS [the Committee on Foreign Investment in the United States] to ensure that US national security interests are protected.”



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