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Criminal Justice

LA County Disputes Sheriff Villanueva's Claim That China ‘Likely’ To Get DNA Data From COVID-19 Tests

Sheriff Alex Villanueva, wearing his uniform, stands at a podium with a microphone. A police cadet wearing a blue mask sits in the background.
Sheriff Alex Villanueva speaks in August at the graduation ceremony for the latest Academy Class.
(Mario Tama/Getty Images)
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Sheriff Alex Villanueva Monday said his deputies and civilian personnel will no longer participate in L.A. County’s COVID-19 registration and testing program, claiming the FBI has warned him that genetic data “will likely be shared with the Republic of China” by the company conducting the testing, Fulgent Genetics Inc.

In a letter to the Board of Supervisors, Villanueva said his department will use “our own proprietary registration system” and other testing companies. The sheriff has already refused to enforce the county’s vaccination mandate, and this latest move raises questions about the county’s ability to track how many of Villanueva’s employees are immunized.

Fulgent does not collect or use DNA in connection with COVID-19 testing.
— Fulgent Chief Commercial Officer Brandon Perthuis

The county and Fulgent — an American-owned, publicly-traded company based in the San Gabriel Valley’s Temple City — immediately pushed back against the sheriff’s assertions about China gaining access to employees’ genetic data.

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LA County Disputes Sheriff’s Claim That China ‘Likely’ To Get DNA Data From COVID-19 Tests

“Fulgent does not collect or use DNA in connection with COVID-19 testing,” the company’s Chief Commercial Officer Brandon Perthuis said in a statement. “The individual’s DNA is not sequenced as part of Fulgent Genetics’ COVID-19 testing. Samples are destroyed via incineration after 48 hours.”

Perthuis said Fulgent met with representatives of the Sheriff’s Department, union negotiators and county leaders to address concerns about security and that the sheriff’s letter “disregarded all of Fulgent’s valid points.”

‘I Wish The Sheriff Would Get His Deputies Vaccinated’

In his letter to the supervisors, the sheriff said the FBI told him at a briefing last Friday that China will “likely” get its hands on genetic data from Fulgent. Villanueva said County counsel Rodrigo Castro-Silva and County CEO Fesia Davenport both attended the meeting.

Davenport did not respond to a request for comment and Castro-Silva referred us to a statement issued Monday by the county that said its contract with Fulgent “prohibits any disclosure of data collected without the County’s express written permission, and requires the company to store and process County data/information only within the continental United States.”

In a subsequent statement issued Tuesday, the county said it "has no evidence from any credible and reliable law enforcement agency or any other source that any County employee data has been or will be shared with the Chinese government."

The FBI declined to comment on Villanueva’s claims. “It's not uncommon to share information with partners but I'm unable to comment on the letter,” spokesperson Laura Eimiller told us.

For the FBI to step forward and offer up its concerns is unprecedented and clearly points to a significant issue.
— The Association of Los Angeles Deputy Sheriffs

The Association of Los Angeles Deputy Sheriffs, which has opposed the vaccination mandate, immediately echoed the sheriff. “For the FBI to step forward and offer up its concerns is unprecedented and clearly points to a significant issue,” it said in a statement.

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“I wish the Sheriff would get his deputies vaccinated instead of worrying about how the unvaccinated get tested,” Supervisor Janice Hahn said in a statement.

Fulgent Performs Testing For The CDC And Homeland Security

“When contracting, protecting employees' health information is a top priority,” Supervisor Hilda Solis said. “If credible threats are flagged, immediate action is taken. To date, we have no indication data has been compromised.

At the same time, Solis appeared open to the sheriff establishing a parallel system of registering and testing his staff.

“If utilizing another testing platform to upload their vaccination status would help bring the Sheriff's Department vaccination rate from 53% to the Countywide Department rate of 81%, then that is a possibility I am willing to entertain,” she said.

The county’s statement said Fulgent is certified by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, accredited by the College of American Pathologists, and licensed by the California Department of Public Health.

Fulgent has contracts to perform COVID-19 testing for the Department of Homeland Security, the CDC, and FEMA, according to the county. It said the firm also contracts with school districts, large private companies, cities and six other California counties, including Orange and San Bernardino.

Villanueva claimed the FBI said the company has “strong ties” to three companies controlled by China. He did not elaborate or provide evidence to back up the claim.

A Separate Chinese Entity

The company was founded in 2011 by billionaire Ming Hsieh, a naturalized U.S. citizen who is a member of the National Academy of Engineering and sits on the Board of Trustees at USC, according to the company’s website. This year, it invested $19 million in a Chinese entity “to capitalize on the large and growing genetic testing opportunity” in China and invested in the country.

That separate firm operates “privately and independently in the People’s Republic of China and does not share personal data of any kind with the Chinese government," Perthuis said in his statement.

The federal government has expressed concerns about Chinese attempts to gather medical, health and genetic data from around the world. National counterintelligence officer Edward You told The New York Times that building a strong database of information would give a country an advantage in developing cures for future infectious diseases.

Villanueva may have been planning to drop out of the county’s system even before his Friday meeting with the FBI. His representatives met with union leaders earlier in the week to discuss the possibility of the Sheriff’s Department setting up its own registration and testing system.

The county contracted with Fulgent to help it track who is following its vaccination mandate, which covers about 102,000 employees.

The county already has begun to place employees who have not been vaccinated on a five-day suspension — more than 800 so far. They have 30 days to comply and after that can be terminated. About 4,500 county employees have applied for religious or medical exemptions, although some people have applied for both.

In saying he will not enforce the mandate, Villanueva has said getting the vaccine should be a personal decision. He has dismissed worries his deputies could spread the virus because they contact the public frequently. He has said deputies should have the option of getting tested regularly.

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