Thermo Fisher Scientific Inc

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A US pharmaceutical and biotech company that provides equipment for mass DNA testing of people detained by US immigration authorities and Rapid DNA testing of migrant families at the US-Mexico border

Thermo Fisher Scientific is a provider of life sciences solutions, analytical instruments, specialty diagnostics, and laboratory products, headquartered in Waltham, Massachusetts. It provides services to 400,000 customers as of 2021, including pharmaceutical and biotech companies, hospitals, universities, research institutions and government agencies. In 2020, the company generated $32.2 billion in revenue, of which 51% was from clients in the United States. From 1998 to July 2021, Thermo Fisher and its subsidiaries were awarded $3.1 billion in U.S. federal government contracts.

Thermo Fisher is a major provider of DNA testing equipment that supports mass DNA testing of people detained by federal immigration authorities in the U.S., as well as Rapid DNA testing of migrant families at the U.S.-Mexico border.

Since 2020, the U.S. government has been requiring the collection of DNA samples from all people arrested, charged, or convicted, as well as all non-U.S. citizens who are detained by U.S. federal law enforcement agencies, including Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) and Customs and Border Protection (CBP). If detained individuals refuse to provide DNA samples, the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) may pursue criminal prosecution.

The samples are stored in the FBI’s Combined DNA Index System (CODIS). The Department of Justice estimated that DHS agencies alone, mostly ICE and CBP, will add some 750,000 samples into CODIS each year. By comparison, during 2018, before the new rule was implemented, DHS agencies added only 7,000 to this database.

Through its existing government contracts and commercial relationships, Thermo Fisher is profiting from this mass DNA collection. The company is a major provider of reagents (the chemical substances used in DNA testing) to the FBI laboratory, which receives all ICE and CBP samples for testing. In September 2019, Life Technologies, a Thermo Fisher subsidiary, signed a five-year contract with the FBI worth a potential $25 million to provide reagents. Furthermore, Thermo Fisher holds the most authorizations for FBI use of PCR kits, a widely used method to test DNA samples. The FBI lists 38 types of different PCR kits used in its DNA database, 18 of which are owned directly by Thermo Fisher or one of its subsidiaries.

Thermo Fisher was also involved in family separation under the Trump administration. In 2019, ICE launched a pilot program to prevent so-called “family unit fraud” by using Rapid DNA tests on migrant families crossing the U.S.-Mexico border. Under the policy, families that were tested and were found not to be biologically related faced various criminal charges, including human trafficking and child exploitation. DHS separated at least 3,914 children from their parents between 2017 and January 2021, and 1,841 of them have yet to be reunited as of August 2021.

After a limited 3-day “proof of concept” pilot using a different company, in June 2019 ICE awarded the first in a series of multi-million dollar contracts to Bode Cellmark Forensics, which exclusively uses Thermo Fisher’s RapidHIT ID system for its Rapid DNA testing. Bode Cellmark Forensics holds contracting vehicles with ICE worth up to $26 million through 2025 for the use of Rapid DNA technology as of August 2021.

While the government considers family testing to be “voluntary,” refusing the test can be used as “a factor in ICE’s assessment of the validity of your asserted familial relationship,” potentially resulting in family separation or deportation. Furthermore, the policy defines a family exclusively based on biological ties, which does not accurately reflect other types of kinship, like adoption.

Despite the projected ending of the pilot program in March 2020, ICE has not given any indication that it will stop using Rapid DNA technology to test migrant families at the border. In the six months between October 2020 and March 2021, 76 families were subjected to Rapid DNA testing. There are no clear ICE protocols to establish which families are subject to Rapid DNA testing and which are not.

Rapid DNA testing is done in less than two hours using cheek swabs, and the samples are destroyed after obtaining the results. The DNA profiles are not stored in the FBI CODIS database, but DHS retains a record of the DNA test results. In July 2021, the FBI approved Thermo Fisher’s “RapidHIT ID DNA Booking System for use by law enforcement booking stations to automatically process, upload and search DNA reference samples from qualifying arrestees against the U.S. National DNA Index System (NDIS) CODIS database.” Thermo Fisher is just the second company to receive this approval for its Rapid DNA equipment.

Rapid DNA is a technology that was developed with funding from the Departments of Defense and Homeland Security. One of the first companies to receive funding for the initiative was IntegenX, which was subsequently acquired by Thermo Fisher in 2018. A 2017 report by the Swedish National Forensic Centre found that Integenx’s RapidHIT DNA profiling system has multiple problems, ranging from incorrect DNA profiles to low success rates. This has raised concerns, not only when it comes to the rights of immigrants, but also any person in police custody.

Other Controversies

Thermo Fisher has sold its DNA testing equipment to Chinese public agencies in Xinjiang, where 36 million people were swabbed for DNA samples during 2016 and 2017. The Chinese government claimed it had conducted this sampling to obtain physical and health data from Xinjiang’s residents, who are predominantly of Uyghur origin, a Muslim ethnic group that has been targeted by the Chinese government. Hundreds of thousands of Uygher Muslims in China have been persecuted and subject to incarceration and forced labor in government “re-education” camps. While Thermo Fisher announced in 2019 that it will no longer sell these products to China, the New York Times uncovered that it continues to do business with Chinese security agencies as of June 2021.

In October 2021, Thermo Fisher was sued for its role in the Henrietta Lacks affair. Lacks was an African American cancer patient, whose tissue samples were kept without her consent by her doctors at Johns Hopkins University Hospital for experimental studies in 1951. While medical research using her cells led to major scientific breakthroughs, her family never consented to its use and was not even aware of it until decades later. The family sued Thermo Fisher for “unjust enrichment,” arguing that the company made “a conscious choice to sell and mass produce the living tissue of Henrietta Lacks (...) despite the corporation's knowledge that Ms. Lacks' tissue was taken from her without her consent by doctors at Johns Hopkins Hospital and a racially unjust medical system.”

Political Influence

Thermo Fisher has a Political Action Committee (PAC) that spent $2.5 million in campaign contributions from 1994 to July 2021, to both the Republican and Democratic parties through direct contributions and other PACs. From 2003 to July 2021, Thermo Fisher has spent $19.5 million in lobbying expenses on issues related to Rapid DNA testing, Department of Defense Procurement, “reunification” efforts using DNA technology, forensic DNA programs and narcotics and drugs detection.

The lobbying firm Gordon Thomas Honeywell, which lobbies on behalf of Thermo Fisher to expand DNA funding and testing by the U.S. federal government, is a subcontractor on a project to build DNA databases in Guatemala, Honduras, and El Salvador, and to promote the expansion of biometric sharing agreements between those countries and theU.S. Department of Homeland Security. Former U.S. Representative Dave Reichert (R-WA), a Vice President at Gordon Thomas Honeywell, is working on the project as a liaison to foreign governments.

Unless specified otherwise, the information in this page is valid as of
7 October 2021