China COVID test company in DNA scandal - Hunt under fire
Anthony Klan | May 1, 2020
Federal Health Minister Greg Hunt. Source: supplied.
The Chinese-government linked company that mining magnate Andrew “Twiggy” Forrest gave hundreds of millions of dollars of taxpayer-backed funds to for COVID-19 tests, and which is currently rushing to install testing facilities across Australia, has previously admitted to storing the DNA of over 100,000 people from across China.
National security expert Geoff Wade from the Australia National University has blown the whistle on what is a potentially disastrous national security threat, describing as “hugely important” reports that Australia did not have the resources to process the tests, and that instead BGI Group - or Beijing Genomics Group - was seeking to rapidly roll-out testing facilities across the nation.
Wade said BGI Group subsidiary Forensic Genomics International (FGI), also known as Shenzhen Huada Forensic Technology, had previously announced that it was “storing the DNA of more than 100,000 people from across China”, potentially opening up millions of Australians to major security concerns.
Forrest has acquired 10m COVID-19 tests from BGI Group and has coordinated the importation of tonnes of testing equipment, as well as analysts from China.
Wade pointed to an article published today in The Australian newspaper regarding the deal between Forrest’s “charity” Minderoo, which involved Forrest giving $320m to BGI Group, all of which would be paid for by Australian taxpayers.
“Special laboratories are being comissioned at 11 pathology sites around the country, with specialised equiptment and reagent being supplied by BGI to enable the tests to be processed,” the article said.
“Have the BGI tests been approved by government?” Wade said today.
“If Australian labs cannot process tests, what does BGI want and what has it been offered?”
He pointed to Chinese state media reports published in recent days which showed BGI currently setting up shop in other parts of the world, including opening testing facilities for Palestinians in the contested territory of the West Bank, as well as in Serbia.
The scandal poses serious questions for health minister Greg Hunt, already in the headlines after he was reportedly “blindsided” on Wednesday night by Forrest.
Forrest allegedly helped Zhou gatecrash a government press conference in at the Commonwealth Parliament Offices in Melbourne, a scene particularly jarring given it occurred during one of the most tense weeks for China-Australia relations in decades.
Zhou is one of Beijing's top diplomats in Australia and was previously coordinator for cyber affairs at China's Ministry of Foreign Affairs - meaning he was one of the nation's most senior spies.
The revelations of BGI's DNA harvesting activities in China shed more light on Wednesday's curious spat.
At the event, Hunt did not introduce Zhou “or allow him to take questions from reporters”, the ABC reported.
The move by Forrest was condemned by Liberal MP and chair of the Parliamentary Joint Committee on Intelligence and Security Andrew Hastie, as well as by other security experts.
“This guy drops out of the sky in his private jet and enables the Chinese Communist Party to ambush a commonwealth press conference,” Hastie said.
“Yeah, we’re not happy.”
It was widely reported that neither Hunt, the Foreign Minister’s Office, or the Prime Minister’s Office was informed of Zhou's planned attendance at the event.
A press statement from BGI Group, which we have obtained contains alleged statements from Hunt, Forrest and Zhou in relation to an alleged press event on Wednesday.
“Brisbane, Australia; April 29, 2020 – Federal Minister for Health, the Hon Greg Hunt MP, and Minderoo Foundation Chairman, Dr Andrew Forrest AO, have announced the ground-breaking partnership formed between the Australian Federal Government and Minderoo Foundation to secure an abundance of COVID-19 testing kits and other equipment, in a mission to eliminate COVID-19 in Australia,” the BGI Group statement says.
“The STAT initiative aims to substantially expand Australia’s testing capacity by an additional 54,000 tests per day, a more than three-fold increase from the current daily COVID-19 testing capacity across Australia.
“Minderoo is Australia’s largest international philanthropic organisation and made a generous donation to Wuhan at the height of China’s COVID-19 crisis. With firm support from the Australian Federal Government, Minderoo has set up the STAT initiative and is injecting significant capital to fund the project, aiming to address the urgent need for population-scale detection and diagnosis of COVID-19 across the nation.”
Remarkably, the statement from the company, which has received $320m from Forrest but which will be picked up by the taxpayer, quotes Hunt allegedly praising Zhou at the Wednesday event.
“In a conversation with Dr Wang Jian, Minister Hunt expressed appreciation for his work on the environment, within BGI, and for the partnership with Minderoo in Australia allowing increased testing and tracing of the virus, and therefore allowing Australia to return to its full and best self as soon as possible,” the BDI press statement says.
“Speaking at the press conference today with Minister Hunt and Dr Forrest, Consul-General of People’s Republic of China in Melbourne, Mr Zhou Long acknowledged the partnership to be “a major step forward between China and Australia with regard to the vital bilateral relationship, to jointly fight the COVID-19 pandemic."
The press statement suggests the Federal Government may have initially intended on announcing the Forrest-BGI deal, along with Zhou, but pulled out of the event.
If that were the case, it almost certainly would have been because security agencies raised concerns at the last minute.
However, in another twist, the BGI statement says its “release date” is yesterday, Thursday April 30, suggesting it was posted after Wednesday’s explosive press conference.
Even if the BGI statement had inadvertently been published early, before BGI knew what had actually occurred at the Wednesday press conference, it could have taken the statement down.
It has not done so suggesting the statement's continued presence is almost certainly a deliberate strategy.
The statement could be entirely propaganda.
In a middle road scenario, the government may have initially agreed to the press conference and Zhou's attendance - it has apparently agreed to the remarkable situation of paying Forrest $320m to deal with a highly questionable foreign company - but then backed out of the press conference, and now China is seeking to capitalise on the situation.
Either way, it appears Hunt and the Federal Government will have some serious explaining to do regarding the whole debacle, which risks growing into a major scandal.