United States: Biomedical Research – The Next Victim Of A U.S.-China Trade War?

Last Updated: July 31 2019
Article by Derrick Kyle and Queena Leung

The trade dispute between the U.S. and China that started mid-2016 has no end in sight. As part of his presidential campaign, then-candidate Donald Trump threatened to apply tariffs on various imports from China. Now that he is President, these tariffs have come to fruition: after several failed rounds of trade negotiations with China, the "Section 301" probe into alleged Chinese intellectual property theft started in earnest early 2018.

Despite multiple temporary stays, the Trump administration officially raised tariffs on the $200 billion of Chinese imports on List 3, from 10% to 25%, on May 9, 20191 (duties on List 1 and 2 products have been in effect since late 2018). For more details on the section 301 tariffs, see Tariff Updates: New Exemptions, Deals Made to Avoid Tariffs, and New China Tariffs Incoming.

The current U.S.-China trade war does not appear to end with tariffs, however. Biomedical research appears to be the latest unlikely victim. Historically, the U.S. has maintained export controls to restrict exports to specific countries. The export laws and regulations operate to restrict the use of and access to controlled information, goods, and technology for national security and foreign policy reasons. In particular, the U.S. has a long history of restricting certain exports of sensitive items and technologies to China.

In recent years, however, there has been an increased focus on intellectual property amid heightened concerns over suspected leaks of U.S. technology to China in areas that would not, at first glance, appear to merit concern.

Today, news outlets are speculating that the economic trade war with China has spread to the search for cancer cures. In fact, some suggest that "Chinese people in America, including U.S. citizens, are now targeted for FBI surveillance."2 What started as an effort to "staunch China's well-documented and costly theft of U.S. innovation and know-how" has "stymied basic science and foundational research that underlies new medical treatments."3

Regardless of whether the speculation is accurate, one prominent cancer research center, the MD Anderson Cancer Center, has attracted the limelight after discharging three scientists over Chinese espionage concerns.

One of the scientists discharged is Dr. Xifeng Wu, a naturalized U.S. citizen, who worked for 27 years at MD Anderson and rose to become the director of the Center for Public Health and Translational Genomics.4

In early April 2019, the National Institutes of Health ("NIH") and the Federal Bureau of Investigations ("FBI") investigated five researchers at MD Anderson whom authorities alleged were involved in the theft of U.S. research for China. After fully cooperating with the NIH and FBI investigation, MD Anderson ultimately dismissed three of the five researchers, including Dr. Wu. No formal charges have been brought against any of the scientists.

In another incident, Emory University terminated two biomedical professors best known for their research of Huntington disease last month over undisclosed ties with China. The two neuroscientists, Li Xia-Jiang and Li Shihua, were accused of "failing to disclose foreign research funding and connections with China."5 They are both U.S. citizens and have worked at Emory University for over two decades.

NIH continues to investigate faculty members at major U.S. research universities "with NIH funding who are believed to have links to foreign governments."6


Is the U.S. taking its trade war fight with China too far? Will biomedical research – in the U.S. and around the world – suffer because of it? Or are the measures being taken by the NIH and research universities appropriate in light of China's unfair practices?



1 Notice of Modification of Section 301 Action: China's Acts Policies, and Practices Related to Technology Transfer, Intellectual Property, and Innovation, USTR, 84 Fed. Reg. 20,459 (May 9, 2019), available at https://www.federalregister.gov/documents/2019/05/09/2019-09681/notice-of-modification-of-section-301-action-chinas-acts-policies-and-practices-related-to.

2 Peter Walman, The U.S. is Purging Chinese Cancer Researchers from Top Institutions, Bloomberg (June 13, 2019), https://www.bloomberg.com/news/features/2019-06-13/the-u-s-is-purging-chinese-americans-from-top-cancer-research?utm_campaign=news&utm_medium=bd&utm_source=applenews.

3 Id.

4 Id.

5 Tara Law, Emory University Fires Two Neuroscientists Accused of Hiding Chinese Ties, Time (May 25, 2019), https://time.com/5596066/emory-fires-chinese-researchers/.

6 Jeffrey Mervis, NIH Letters Asking about Undisclosed Foreign Ties Rattle U.S. Universities, Science Magazine (Mar. 1, 2019), https://www.sciencemag.org/news/2019/03/nih-letters-asking-about-undisclosed-foreign-ties-rattle-us-universities.

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