A third former scientist at GlaxoSmithKline (GSK) has pleaded guilty to stealing trade secrets to benefit pharmaceutical company Renopharma, which was backed by Chinese regime funding, the Department of Justice (DOJ) announced on Jan. 3.
Lucy Xi, 44, formerly a resident of Malvern, Pennsylvania, is the fourth person to plead guilty in the scheme that also involves former GSK scientists Yu Xue and Tao Li, Yu’s sister Tian Xue, and Yan Mei, to whom Xi was married.
According to the DOJ, Xi and her co-defendants created Renopharma in Nanjing, China, to research and develop anti-cancer drugs. Meanwhile, the three were also employed at British drug manufacturer GSK’s facility in Upper Merion, Pennsylvania, where they developed biopharmaceutical products.
Prosecutors said they used their positions at the company to steal trade secrets from their employer to benefit Renopharma, which received financial support and subsidies from the Chinese regime.
These products typically cost in excess of $1 billion to research and develop, U.S. Attorney Jennifer Arbittier Williams said in announcing Xi’s guilty plea.
The DOJ stated that Xi sent her husband a GSK document in 2015 containing confidential and trade secret data and information, including a summary of the company’s research into monoclonal antibodies—laboratory-made proteins that imitate the immune system’s ability to fight off infections, such as viruses—at that time.
Xi allegedly wrote in the email: “You need to understand it very well. It will help you in your future business [RENOPHARMA].”
“This defendant illegally stole trade secrets to benefit her husband’s company, which was financed by the Chinese government,” Williams said. “The lifeblood of companies like GSK is its intellectual property, and when that property is stolen and transferred to a foreign country, it threatens thousands of American jobs and jeopardizes the strategic benefits brought about through research and development. Such criminal behavior must be prosecuted to the fullest extent of the law.”
Yu, Tian, and Tao all previously pleaded guilty for their roles in the scheme, which came to light after an FBI probe. Yan, who is considered a fugitive by the U.S. government, currently resides in China.
Yu pleaded guilty in federal court in Pennsylvania to charges of conspiring to steal trade secrets from GSK in August 2018, according to a 2018 DOJ statement. Tao pleaded guilty to similar charges the following month.
FBI agent Jacqueline Maguire noted that pharmaceutical companies such as GSK invest a huge amount of time and money into developing new drugs and bringing them to the market.
“When individuals steal valuable trade secrets concerning one of these drugs, it’s a threat both to that firm and beyond. After all, innovation like this propels the U.S. economy,” said Maguire, a special agent in charge of the FBI’s Philadelphia Division.
“The FBI is committed to enforcing laws that protect the nation’s businesses from such theft. We will not permit American research and development to be scavenged for the benefit of other companies or countries.”