Health officials warned Harris ahead of meeting with DNA collection firm
Genomics Medicine Ireland presenting itself as ‘national project’ when owned by multinational investors
Genomics Medicine Ireland plans to spend up to €800 million collecting the DNA of 400,000 Irish people but it has not confirmed publicly how far it has progressed towards this goal.
Department of Health officials warned that a for-profit genetic research company was presenting itself as “a national project” when it was in fact owned by multinational investors, official records show.
Correspondence between department officials in advance of a meeting between Minister for Health Simon Harris and Genomics Medicine Ireland (GMI) shows the company was anxious Mr Harris be told of their concerns, and the history of “fractious” engagement with the company before the meeting.
Officials were also concerned about last minute-changes made by the company in advance of the meeting, which raised questions about the value and the “wisdom” of Mr Harris meeting the firm.
GMI plans to spend up to €800 million collecting the DNA of 400,000 Irish people but it has not confirmed publicly how far it has progressed towards this goal. The company describes itself as a subsidiary of the US-based Wuxi Nextcode. The State last year invested $70 million in GMI through its Ireland Strategic Investment Fund (ISIF). Wuxi Nextcode says it is owned by multinational investors, but concerns have been raised in the US about its links to China.
The difficulties between the department and GMI are revealed in official correspondence between officials before the meeting in June, released under the Freedom of Information Act.
Following last-minute changes to the agenda and attendee list, officials warned that “the Minister should be aware that the department has had substantial engagement with GMI which at times has been fractious”.
Later, the official wrote that “The department would have concerns as to the extent to which GMI presents itself as a national project when it is a private predominantly foreign-owned operator.”
Emails between senior officials show that the changes to the meeting agenda and attendee list raised concerns in the department. The meeting was to be held between Mr Harris, GMI and Genomics England but the English firm was unable to attend on the day.
After the meeting agenda was circulated, a department official wrote to another: “OMG [Oh my God] Does Muiris [O’Connor, assistant secretary] know about this shift. This is all about GMI’s agreement with UCD! Did they make contact proactively to apologise for the major change of agenda and attendees?”
The second official replied that: “The value of the meeting is no longer clear as it had been originally scheduled to be a discussion on the international dimension of genomics and bilateral UK co-operation, and it is now a direct meeting with GMI.”
The records show that officials were concerned that “the wisdom of this meeting at this time is in question pending the further advancement of national policy development that is required in this space and the usefulness of this meeting is now in question due to the change in attendees”.
GMI is the subject of a “widespread compliance and supervision” exercise by the Data Protection Commissioner following complaints about the methods it uses to process genetic data it has gathered from Irish people. The information gathered may be used for a full-blown statutory investigation of the company, if the commissioner decides to proceed with one.
A spokewoman for GMI said in a statement that Genomics England was not available on the date of the meeting with the Minister, who it said was “made aware of this in advance” and chose to meet GMI and UCD officials.
“This productive meeting discussed a number of topics including the need for a national genomics programme for which GMI has consistently voiced its support,” she said.
“GMI has always communicated its status as a private multinational company with Irish and international investors and has never purported to be the national genomics project for Ireland.”
A spokeswoman for Mr Harris said the meeting took place at GMI’s request and the Minister acknowledged GMI’s “interest and capacity” in the space, but highlighted the lack of a national strategy for genomics. She said Mr Harris told the company the development of a strategy would require debates with many stakeholders alongside GMI.