HAVERHILL — A Massachusetts-based company worth $56.6 billion that has a manufacturing facility in Haverhill said that it would no longer sell certain scientific equipment to a region of China. The announcement came after The New York Times reported the country was using the equipment to collect genetic information about its residents without their consent.
Thermo Fisher Scientific manufactures equipment that China has used to collect DNA from the country's Uighurs, a predominantly Muslim ethnic group, in Xinjiang, the westernmost region of the country, the Times reported. The country's collection practices — often disguised as a "free health check" that requires blood be drawn — is part of China's vast campaign to monitor and oppress its people, and specifically to make the Uighurs more subservient to the Communist Party, according to the Times.
The genetic information can then be used by the government to track down those who resist the country's campaign of surveillance and oppression, according to human rights groups and Uighur activists.
Thermo Fisher's principal offices are located in Waltham, but it operates a manufacturing facility in Haverhill in the Ward Hill Business Park that employs about 100 people, the company said. Worldwide, the company employs about 70,000 people, some 5,000 of whom work in China, the Times reported. The company also has an office in Newburyport.
Speaking from the Haverhill facility, which is split into three buildings, facilities manager Nick Costantino said Friday that the chemicals manufactured there are not used in the genetic testing equipment produced by Thermo Fisher. Ron O'Brien, a spokesman for the company, also confirmed that the Haverhill site does not have a connection to the materials in question in China.
Repercussions from the New York Times story "have nothing to do with us," Costantino said.
Thermo Fisher declined through O'Brien to answer further questions from The Eagle-Tribune, but provided the same statement issued to the Times on Feb. 20.
"As the world leader in serving science, we recognize the importance of considering how our products and services are used – or may be used – by our customers. We undertake fact-specific assessments and have decided to cease all sales and servicing of our human identification technology in the Xinjiang region – a decision that is consistent with Thermo Fisher’s values, ethics code and policies," the statement read.
The Times reported that 10 percent of Thermo Fisher's $20.9 billion in revenue came from China, according to the company’s 2017 annual report. O'Brien did not answer questions from The Eagle-Tribune about how the loss of a portion of that revenue might affect local employees, though Costantino said he did not have any concerns about repercussions in Haverhill.
According to the Times, China's campaign "poses a direct challenge to the scientific community and the way it makes cutting-edge knowledge publicly available. The campaign relies in part on public DNA databases and commercial technology, much of it made or managed in the United States. In turn, Chinese scientists have contributed Uighur DNA samples to a global database, potentially violating scientific norms of consent."
Mark Munsterhjelm, an assistant professor at the University of Windsor in Ontario, told the Times that cooperation from the global scientific community “legitimizes this type of genetic surveillance." The paper reported that he has worked closely to track to use of American technology in Xinjiang.
"We are proud to be a part of the many positive ways in which DNA identification has been applied, from tracking down criminals to stopping human trafficking and freeing the unjustly accused," the Thermo Fisher statement concluded. "We are committed to continuing to deliver those benefits to our customers, consistent with our mission to enable our customers to make the world healthier, cleaner and safer."