Monkey-brain study with link to China’s military roils top European university

SYDNEY/COPENHAGEN (Reuters), Nov 18 – A Chinese professor at University of Copenhagen conducted genetic research without disclosing the connection. This is the latest example of how China’s pursuit of military and civil technology is tapping into Western academia, particularly in the highly sensitive area of biotechnology.

Guojie Zhang, a professor, is also employed at Shenzhen’s genomics giant BGI Group. This group, which funds dozens more researchers at the university, has its European headquarters on campus.

Zhang and a student he was supervising worked with a People’s Liberation Army (PLA) laboratory on research exposing monkeys to extreme altitude to study their brains and develop new drugs to prevent brain damage – a priority the PLA has identified for Chinese troops operating on High plateau borders.

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Zhang co-published this PaperWith a PLA major general January 2020. The university was still in existence at the time that the study was published. “not familiar with the fact that the paper also included authors from Chinese military research institutions,”Niels Kroer is the head of the biology department. He spoke to Reuters via an email.

Zhang confirmed that Zhang did not inform the university about this link because it didn’t require researchers reporting co-authors of scientific papers. The university confirmed Zhang’s statement. BGI stated that the study was done in collaboration with the PLA laboratory. “was not carried out for military purposes”Brain research is crucial for understanding human diseases. China’s government science academy The study provided civilian benefits and national defense on the Tibetan plateau.

Recent years have seen increased concern in the United States about China’s fusion technology of civilian and military technology, as well as about universities transferring sensitive technology from the United States to China that could aid its military. Washington We are in agreementThe European Union and the United States agreed last month to cooperate on the issue under a joint technology and trade council. The U.S. Department of Defense’s report on China’s military strength this month raised concerns about Beijing using biotechnology in order to boost its soldiers’ performance.

The Danish incident, which is being reported here for the first-time, shows how China’s pursuits in biotechnology for military use have also become a concern for universities across Europe.

The European Commission claims it is developing guidelines “tackling foreign interference”Higher education institutions; a 2020 ReportThe Leiden Asia Centre is an independent group affiliated to Leiden University, the Netherlands. It found that at most five European countries had concerns about China’s potential research collaboration. Some universities, including Copenhagen have had long-standing science ties with China.

The funding of some Zhang’s research was made possible by two large Danish foundations and Copenhagen University. According to the paper, the work was funded by the Chinese military and government.

The discovery was made by PET, Denmark’s intelligence agency. WarnedDanish universities were warned in May about the national security risk of being unwittingly involved with foreign military research “a number of espionage activities and other foreign interference,”A student who coauthored 5G technology research with an engineer from a Chinese military college. It declined to comment on specific cases.

Zhang has a genetics laboratory at the Chinese Academy of Science. The study revealed that high altitude on Tibet’s Tibetan plateau had caused brain damage and death. “national defence construction.”

The Ministry of Higher Education and Science of Denmark declined to comment on the study at altitude. However, it said that export control rules apply to certain technology that can be used both for civilian and military purposes. The Danish Business Authority stated that most types and gene technology are not included on its export list.

The ministry stated that it had initiated a comprehensive review of the risk of international research cooperation. It was being led by top university heads and will conclude next year.

The University of Copenhagen plans to review “ethical and security policy limits”Collaboration will result in new rules and a greater focus on risks for universities, Kim Brinckmann, the deputy director for research innovation at the university, told Reuters via email.

“We are very proud to have Prof. Zhang … as one of our very highly performing researchers,”He said. The university did not answer a question about the amount of funding BGI provides.

China’s foreign ministry stated that it had urged Danish institutions to apply for the position. “abandon ideological prejudice and end groundless accusations and smears,”Their research cooperation should be treated rationally “to accrue positive energy in the development of bilateral relations and practical cooperation.”

ALTITUDE

The study was co-authored by Zhang and Major General Yuqi Gao (head of the PLA laboratory high-altitude research), which also includes Wang Jian and Yang Huanming, founders of BGI. Reuters reported in January that BGI also collaborated in research with Gao on soldiers in Tibet (Xinjiang)

Two U.S. senators cited this report in September and demanded that BGI be sanctioned as a military-linked American company. According to the Chinese military, Gao’s research directly improved the capability of China’s rapid advance plateau troops to conduct training and combat missions. official news service.

China’s Academy of Military Medical Sciences created a four-year plan for troops to adapt to the Tibetan plateau’s low oxygen levels in 2012. According to the plan, BGI was working in collaboration with Gao’s laboratory to test soldiers arriving to Tibet and identify genes that could cause altitude sickness. This does not affect Tibetans. It said that altitude sickness prevention was key to “manage border areas where ethnic minorities gather,”It had a profound economic and political impact.

BGI told Reuters that research with the military University was done to determine the health risks to all people who travel to high altitudes and work at them.

“The project using BGI’s technology studied the changes of the pathophysiology and genomics of the human body at very high altitudes,”A spokesperson for BGI said. “In China, many military institutions … carry out both civilian and military research,”He concluded.

Gao WriteIn 2018, high altitude diseases were a major concern “is the main reason for reduced combat effectiveness and health damage of soldiers at high altitudes and influences the results of war on the highland plateau,”He also noted that drugs could be used in emergencies to enable soldiers to be quickly deployed.

China’s military recently changed IncreasingLive fire drills in Tibet following border clashes between India and Tibet.

DEEP TIES

The University of Copenhagen is home to one of Europe’s oldest genetics institutions. It is also BGI’s largest international research partner in terms of science papers.

The ties go back a long way. BGI’s former chief executives and chairman, as well as the founder of its animal-cloning programme, were previously employed or studied at Copenhagen. More than two dozen BGI-funded scientists are enrolled at the university to pursue science and health doctorates.

Kroer, a biology head, told Reuters that the university was unaware of Kroer’s comments. “claims that BGI has connections with the PLA.”The university claimed that Zhang was paid a salary as a professor and no Danish money was used on the study. This was in direct violation of animal rights activists. arguedThe animals were subjected to suffering and distress.

The university stated that Zhang worked with a student who was in China. Zhang’s research group was not involved with the animal experiments conducted in China, but it did analyse the genomic data resulting from the experiments.

The Lundbeck Foundation, which funds brain research and was incorrectly listed in the funding list for the monkey brain study, is primarily funded by the Lundbeck Foundation. “has not supported this area of his research, nor do we have any knowledge about it,”A spokesperson said that the monkey brain research was being pursued. Lundbeck claimed that Zhang had told them he was learning Genetics and antsThis could explain brain processes in humans.

According to the foundation, Zhang was asked by it this year to remove its name form the study. The Carlsberg Foundation is the world’s third largest brewer. It said it gave Zhang a DKK4 million fellowship ($623,000) in 2016. Reuters also reported that it incorrectly listed it as funding the project.

The paper was published in Zoological Research, a Chinese journal. The journal declined to comment.

Zhang is a member of the journal’s editorial committee. He explained to Reuters that the Danish foundations had been mistakenly mentioned in the journal. “We did not spend any funding from the grants I received from these two foundations on this project,”He also added it in an email. In March 2021, the journal published a correction that removed the foundations’ names.

Lundbeck declined comment on the impact of the discovery; Carlsberg stated that animal experiments conducted abroad must conform to Danish regulations, but did no comment on military involvement.

INTERNAL DEBATE

The University of Copenhagen announced that it would close the think tank it had been running with Shanghai’s Fudan University in June 2020. It stated that it had redesigned its overall cooperation strategy.

Documents obtained by Reuters from Freedom of Information rules show that the decision prompted a debate within the university about China. The university met in August 2020 to discuss Fudan’s closing and to review its relationship with China.

“China has engaged in a strategic civil-military fusion of research that often blurs the lines to the outsider,”Jorgen Delman, China Studies professor, wrote a note to the university’s director recommending better screening for Chinese researchers and consultations to Danish military intelligence to offer advice. “risks and no-go areas.”He declined to comment further.

After Yutao du, a researcher who received her doctorate from Danish universities in 2007, BGI transferred genetic cloning technology to them. Yutao was part of a team that created the first pigs in the world using a technique known as handmade cloning. She was praised by China for bringing this technology to China. China went on to clone genetically engineered pigs for research into neurological disorders.

China’s national science program said that cloning pigs was a way to move to chimeras. This controversial area is where China wants to lead the world. Chimeras are organisms made up of cells from more than one species and capable of growing organs that can be used for transplantation.

Du is now vice-president at BGI Genomics Ltd. She was promoted within the Chinese Communist Party and became a delegate for its national congress in 2017. She did not respond when we asked her for comment.

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Kirsty needham reported from Sydney, Stine Jacquesen from Copenhagen; Edited By Sara Ledwith

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