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07/06/2020 | US embassy in UAE declined free COVID-19 tests due to Chinese spying concerns

Joseph Fitsanakis

The embassy of the United States in the United Arab Emirates declined free COVID-19 testing kits for its staff, because of concerns that the private labs offering the kits had ties to China, according to a new report.

 

The testing kits were offered by a testing facility that was set up in March in Abu Dhabi, which is the capital of the oil-rich UAE —a close American ally in the Middle East.

The facility was built in record time, through a collaboration between two private companies. The main partner in the scheme is Group42, a privately owned artificial intelligence firm, which is based in the UAE and is believed to be partly owned by members of the kingdom’s royal family. Its partner in the venture is BGI Group, a Chinese company —formerly known as the Beijing Genomics Group— that specializes in genomics research. Since its establishment, the facility has reportedly delivered over 2 million COVID-19 testing kits —complete with reagents— for the population of the UAE, which numbers just over 9 million. Given these numbers, local officials have hailed the initiative as a success and credit it with having produced “one of the largest per capita testing rates in the world”. The oil-rich kingdom has so far reported about 36,000 confirmed coronavirus cases, which have resulted in 270 deaths —about 2.5 deaths per 100,000 UAE residents.

But, according to The Financial Times, the United States embassy in Abu Dhabi turned down an offer for free COVID-19 testing kits for its employees by Group42. The paper quoted an anonymous United States government official, who said that the offer was “politely declined” last month by the embassy leadership. American State Department officials were allegedly concerned that the DNA information of tested embassy employees could be compromised and “find its way to Beijing”, said the source. “Concerns were raised about patient privacy and the way that the tests could be used”, added the official, and described the involvement of BGI in the venture as “a red flag” for Washington.

BGI Group told the paper that it had no links to the government of China and no access to the data of patients, which were stored in Group42 facilities in the Emirates. The UAE-based company said that it followed “strict information security and data privacy protocols are in place” to protect sensitive information. The firm refused to divulge information about its owners, citing strict laws that are in place in the kingdom.

But the incident illustrates the growing suspicion in relations between the US and China. This poses difficult dilemmas for third countries, like the UAE. The oil-rich state is among several monarchies in the Gulf that have deepened their relations with China in recent years, in both the political and economic domains. Since 2000, the value of bilateral trade between Abu Dhabi and Beijing has grown from $2 billion to nearly $70 billion per year. At the same time, the UAE is one of the largest purchasers of US military technology in the world. The oil-rich monarchy spends on average $3 billion annually to acquire American weapons. Recently, however, Abu Dhabi has shown an increasing interest in Chinese-made weapons. Its armed forces and police departments now use several Chinese weapons and surveillance systems. At the same time, Huawei, a Chinese-owned telecommunications hardware producer, is scheduled to build the nation’s 5G cellular network. Washington has expressed serious concerns about that decision.

Speaking to The Financial Times, the anonymous US government official said that these steps by the UAE leadership, which are bringing it closer to China, “risk rupturing the long-term strategic relationship [the country has] with the US”.

Intelnews.org (Estados Unidos)

 



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