The scientist who shocked the world last year with his announcement that he had used CRISPR technology to edit the genes of the infant girls, He Jiankui, has officially been accused of criminal acts by the Chinese government.
First published by the Wall Street Journal, Chinese officials spoke through the state-sanctioned Xinuha News Agency to say that He “will be transferred to public security authorities,” while others involved in the experiments will be “severely dealt with according to the law.”
According to Xinuha, Chinese officials are accusing He of organizing “a project team that included foreign staff, which intentionally avoided surveillance and used technology of uncertain safety and effectiveness to perform human embryo gene-editing activity with the purpose of reproduction, which is officially banned in the country.”
While harsh, at first blush these charges are notable for not explicitly including “economic crimes,” or corruption, as some of He’s colleagues around the world initially feared. Such an accusation would have the potential for the death penalty, which Chinese officials seem to be avoiding in this unprecedented situation. Since late December, He was living in what appeared to be a form of home arrest.
A number of measures rolled against He on Monday. His university, the Southern University of Science and Technology in Shenzhen, fired him. The state science ministry announced that it was “resolutely opposed” to the experiment and would work to “improve relevant laws and regulations and improve the scientific research ethics review system.”
Over the course of previous investigation, it’s come to light that He forged ethical review papers and ultimately deceived the eight couples, two of which became pregnant, he recruited from China’s HIV-positive community to participate in his experiment by promising them scientific achievements he was in no position to deliver. While He has claimed that his experiments were to help the twins, nicknamed Lulu and Nana, to become resistant to HIV, geneticists who have studied his work are dismissive of the idea that he has helped the children at all.
Lulu and Nana will remain under state-supervised medical supervision in Guangdong Province, near where He’s experiments occurred. The second pregnant woman, who has yet to give birth, is also being closely monitored by authorities in Guangdong. There are concerns that He’s work will leave the children particularly vulnerable to diseases carried by mosquitos like West Nile Virus.
Speaking to Beijing Youth Daily, an outlet of the state’s Communist Party, Shao Feng of the Chinese Academy of Sciences and deputy director of the National Institute of Biological Sciences, promised a thorough investigation.
“Once the gate of gene-editing is wide open, the human race will be finished,” he said, quoted in the South China Morning Post. “The technology is strong but the terrifying fact is that anyone slightly trained in a lab can perform it.”
As for Lulu and Nana, Shao says he hopes that the drama surrounding their earliest days does not affect them moving forward. “If I were to handle the matter, I would never tell [the twins] they’ve been gene-edited and allow them to live their lives like normal people,” he says. “I think that’s for the best.”
Source: Wall Street Journal