Most of Europe was in lockdown in April 2020 when a plane arrived in the Serbian capital bearing a well-timed gift from the People’s Republic of China. Inside was a Chinese invention called the Fire-Eye, a sophisticated portable lab that could detect coronavirus infections from tiny genetic fragments the pathogen leaves behind.
And that, as Serbians soon discovered, was the least of its capabilities.
The Fire-Eye excelled not only at cracking the genetic code for viruses, but also for humans, with machines that can decipher genetic instructions contained within the cells of every person on Earth, according to its Chinese inventors. In late 2021, with the pandemic still raging, Serbian officials announced they were working with a Chinese company to convert the lab into a permanent facility with plans to harvest and curate the entire genomes, or genetics blueprints, of Serbian citizens.
Serbia’s scientists were thrilled, and the country’s prime minister, Ana Brnabic, praised China for giving the Balkan country the “most advanced institute for precision medicine and genetics in the region.” Yet now, China’s Fire-Eye labs — scores of...