US biotech firm halts sales of DNA collection kits in Tibet

Human rights groups applaud the move, but they say more transparency is needed.
By Tenzin Pema and Tashi Wangchuk for RFA Tibetan
2024.01.04
US biotech firm halts sales of DNA collection kits in Tibet Exile Tibetans hold placards during a street protest against Thermo Fisher Scientific Inc., in Dharamshala, India, Feb. 3, 2023.
Ashwini Bhatia/AP

UPDATED at 6:41 P.M. ET on 01-04-2024

U.S. biotechnology company Thermo Fisher Scientific Inc. has stopped selling DNA collection kits in Tibet after human rights groups said the products were used by Chinese authorities to further police and repress Tibetans.  

The Massachusetts-based company’s human identification, or HID, technology is used for forensic applications, such as tracking down criminals, stopping human trafficking and freeing the unjustly accused, the company said in an email. 

“Based on a number of factors, we made the decision in mid-2023 to cease sales of HID products in the region,” Thermo Fisher said.

“While we don’t disclose sales by business, it is important to note that our sales of this technology are consistent with routine forensic application in an area of this size,” the email said.

The development was first reported by Axios on Wednesday. 

In recent years, Chinese authorities have arbitrarily collected biometric data and DNA in the form of involuntary blood samples from school children at boarding schools without parental permission, Radio Free Asia reported.

Tibetans see the measure as part of the Chinese government’s larger goal of the forcible assimilation and erasure of their cultural identity.

Human rights groups, who had called for Thermo Fisher to stop selling the DNA kits in Tibet, approved of the move. 

“Companies must understand that their complacency enables repression in occupied Tibet,” Chemi Lhamo, campaign director at Students for a Free Tibet, told RFA. 

“Thermo Fisher, the top bioinformatics company, accepted the evidence we shared about the reality of policing in Tibet and has taken action to end its DNA kit sales in Tibet,” she said. “This is the result of our collective organizing, and the same power will continue to hold Thermo Fisher to its promise.”

‘Not enough’

Maya Wang, interim China director and associate Asia director at Human Rights Watch, said the move showed how pressure works to improve the human rights situation in China, even in Tibet and Xinjiang, where there are serious violations. 

Chinese authorities also have forcibly collected DNA samples from Uyghurs and other Muslim groups in Xinjiang amid a wider campaign of mass surveillance and repression. 

“But this is not enough,” Wang said, referring to Thermo Fisher’s discontinuation of sales of DNA collection kits to Tibet.  

“Companies, according to U.N. Guiding Principles, should not contribute to human rights abuses,” she said. “So, it is important that Thermo Fisher review its business practices in China and put in place human rights due diligence systems and mechanisms, to make sure that its sales in China [do] not contribute to human rights abuses throughout the country of China.”

However, even though the company has halted sales of equipment to Xinjiang and Tibet, it can easily be resold in China into these regions, Wang cautioned. She added that the U.S. government and Congress should ensure Thermo Fisher conducts business responsibly and complies with human rights standards in China. 

A view of Thermo Fisher Scientific  Inc.'s headquarters in Waltham, Massachusetts, Aug. 2, 2023. (Brian Snyder/Reuters)
A view of Thermo Fisher Scientific Inc.'s headquarters in Waltham, Massachusetts, Aug. 2, 2023. (Brian Snyder/Reuters)

In September 2022, Human Rights Watch reported that authorities had been conducting mass DNA collection drives in all seven prefectures or municipalities in the Tibet Autonomous Region, or TAR, which covers the western part of the Tibetan plateau. 

“The collection drives are part of ongoing efforts by Chinese authorities to establish police presence at the grassroots level throughout the region,” the rights group said at that time.

Tenzin Yangzom from the International Tibet Network, another rights group that put pressure on the company to stop the sales in Tibet, wants Thermo Fisher to be more transparent about human rights due diligence. 

“Transparency can be improved through enhanced disclosures including reports from their existing ethics team,” she said. “We’ve asked them for impact reports where they agreed to halt sales and continue the ongoing dialogue. We will be closely monitoring the situation.” 

The Central Tibetan Administration, or CTA, headquartered in Dharamsala, India, also welcomed the move, but told RFA it was imperative that Thermo Fisher follows through on its commitment to halt sales of DNA collection kits in Tibet.

"It's not just Thermo Fisher; there are several other companies that sell such kinds of DNA collection kits and surveillance instruments in China and outside," said CTA spokesman Tenzin Lekshey. "These companies should also ensure they stop the sale of such products that are being used to violate the human rights of Tibetans in Tibet."

'The right choice'

Thermo Fisher’s investors also praised the move.  

Joshua Brockwell, director of investment communications Azzad Asset Management in Falls Church, Virginia, a Thermo Fisher shareholder, said the company made “the right choice” by helping “end biometric repression as a tool of Chinese authoritarian surveillance.” 

“Halting sales of DNA collection kits to Tibetan authorities is not only more consistent with American values, it is an important way to mitigate potential harm to shareholder value from reputational risks associated with doing business in occupied territories,” he said. 

Individual investor Mari Mennel-Bell told RFA she was pleased that Thermo Fisher had stopped the sales of the HID kits in Tibet.

This process shows that companies should not assume that individual shareholders will be passive investors,” she said. “Increasingly, they are following their consciences to push companies to do the right thing.”

Chinese authorities have collected DNA samples in the rest of China as well.

In 2019, RFA reported that provincial and municipal authorities across China were buying large amounts of DNA sampling kits, testing instruments, sequencers, and other tools from domestic companies, though most of the DNA instrument analyzing technology was being supplied by Thermo Fisher.

In December 2022, the bipartisan U.S. Congressional-Executive Commission on China wrote a letter to Thermo Fisher, expressing concern over the company’s sales of DNA kits and replacement parts for sequencers in Tibet. 

They asked President and CEO Marc Casper to conduct “a rigorous review" of the reported use of the company's products and equipment in the TAR, and ensure that the company would take steps to stop further use.

Translated by Tenzin Pema for RFA Tibetan. Edited by Roseanne Gerin and Malcolm Foster.

Adds comments from the Central Tibetan Administration.

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