14 Dec 2012 | 20:53 GMT | Posted by Monya Baker |
In a letter to employees, sequencing company Complete Genomics CEO 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 $118-million dollar agreement under which Complete Genomics, which has a proprietary technology for sequencing human genomes, would become a BGI-owned subsidiary, with staff and facilities to remain in Mountain View, California. In a spurned counter-offer, San Diego, California-based Illumina presented itself as a better suitor to Complete Genomics, predicting that a deal with BGI would be blocked by part of the U.S. Treasury Department that oversees foreign investment in the U.S. (See Illumina, BGI spar over Complete Genomics)
Reid countered that Illumina’s proposal to acquire Complete Genomics would likely not get past antitrust regulators since 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 U.S.-China Economic and Security Review Commission, a congressionally appointed advisory group, referred to a speculative scenario described in the Atlantic. It describes a world in which a virus engineered to kill a specific individual can be ordered online for $500. It goes 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. Stanford synthetic biologist Drew Endy said the Atlantic article read like science fiction, at least for now. “I was shocked to see it published in that venue.”
Asked by Nature how worried he was that Complete Genomics’ technology could be used for bioweapons, Wessel said “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 US-China Economic and Security Review Commission has taken no position on the transaction, Wessel said. “These concerns deserve to be strictly scrutinized by CFIUS [the Committee on Foreign Investment in the U.S.] to ensure that U.S. national security interests are protected.”