When European Council chief Charles Michel visits China this week, he’ll leave behind a present for President Xi Jinping: A swab of his genetic material.
Under Beijing’s current rules, Michel will have to submit to a COVID swab upon arriving in China. During his own visit to China earlier this month, German Chancellor Olaf Scholz’s PCR test was administered by a German doctor who traveled with him on his plane, rather than a local one.
But these precautions haven’t been taken ahead of Michel’s visit. An EU official told POLITICO’s Brussels Playbook that Michel’s PCR would be administered by a doctor from the Chinese government in Beijing.
The issue has been in the spotlight since French President Emmanuel Macron refused to allow Vladimir Putin’s doctors to perform a COVID test earlier this year when he visited Russia, opting instead to sit at the other end of a 4 meter-long table to allow for social distancing. Reuters reported that Macron had refused the Russian test over fears that his DNA could be harvested in the process, though the Elysée would not confirm that.
In his own visit to Russia a few days after Macron’s, Scholz also refused to submit to a Russian swab, opting instead for a doctor at the German Embassy in Moscow to test him.
“Any world leader who doesn’t refuse to give a sample is clearly misinformed,” said Brian McDonald, a molecular geneticist who works as a DNA expert witness in Australia. “I would advise any world leader who is considering getting a swab taken by a foreign government not to do it.”
While it would also be possible to get a DNA sample from a visiting world leader from, say, a hair left behind in their hotel room or the cutlery they use for a meal, McDonald said there’s a significant advantage in a PCR-like swab.
The difference is the quantity and quality of DNA, McDonald said: “So on a drink container, you might be lucky and get enough, but you may not … A hair is not a very good source — it has to be at an appropriate stage of life cycle, to have a root on it.”
A swab, on the other hand, “is how reference samples for forensic databases are taken … You’re going to have tons of DNA to do profiling and even genetic sequencing on a mouth or nasal swab.”
The sort of information that could be extracted from such a sample would be a predisposition to diseases that have a genetic component or familial relationships to others who have had samples taken, not to mention future uses of DNA which are currently unforeseen.
Michel is due to meet Chinese President Xi Jinping for a bilateral discussion on Thursday. He will be the first Western leader to visit China since mass protests hit the country in the biggest show of public disapproval in Beijing’s leaders since the Tiananmen Square massacre in 1989.