China Says Claim Of Gene-Edited Babies 'Seriously Violated' Regulations

Jan 21, 2019
Originally published on January 21, 2019 6:11 pm
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AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

An update now on the Chinese scientist who shocked the world last fall when he claimed that he'd created the world's first genetically modified babies. Chinese state media reported today that a government investigation has found that He Jiankui seriously violated state regulations. And today, his university released a statement saying he'd been fired. Scientists around the world have condemned his work, with many saying his experiment was reckless and crossed ethical boundaries.

For more, we're joined by Marilynn Marchione. She is chief medical writer for The Associated Press. She was among the first to report this story and has been following developments. Marilynn, welcome to the program.

MARILYNN MARCHIONE: Hi. Thanks very much.

CORNISH: So first, what do you make of today's announcement from Chinese authorities that this scientist broke the rules?

MARCHIONE: Well, I think it's clear that - from the world's reaction to his work that he violated some societal norms for what he did. But what was significant to us, and a bit of a surprise, was that the report appears to give credence to the fact that these babies actually do exist.

There's been a lot of doubt because the work has not been published. The couple - the supposed parents of these babies was not able to be interviewed. So we have been wondering and looking for proof that this really, indeed, occurred, and the investigation appears to have confirmed that.

CORNISH: So help us understand. Is it clear what state regulations he's accused of violating?

MARCHIONE: Well, it is very unclear whether it's state or federal or just exactly what rules or regulations there are. The ones that we have looked at and that others have flagged to us seem to have been adopted around the time when human cloning was more in the news and that was a big concern and risk. We're not aware of anything that directly addresses embryo gene-editing, which is what this was.

CORNISH: In the meantime, he hasn't been out in public since he presented his work, right? And that was at a conference in Hong Kong two months ago. Does anyone know what's happened to him?

MARCHIONE: Well, I spoke just this morning with a Stanford bioethicist who has been in almost weekly contact with Dr. He ever since the conference. And he says that the guards at the apartment and the university where Dr. He is living are there out of mutual agreement, that there have been nasty emails, and there were some efforts - many efforts to contact Dr. He.

CORNISH: So it's a kind of house-arrest story. What are we talking about here?

MARCHIONE: It sounds like that. It's really hard to describe because his own university has not responded to inquiries. There are others who have investigations under the way - his university in Shenzhen. Also, the Chinese Ministry of Science and Health, I believe, still got an investigation open. This is a local province - the local authorities, who have issued the first statement on this.

CORNISH: When this story was first reported, there was a kind of conversation about whether or not laws in China around this kind of research were somehow more lax than in other parts of the world. What does this response that we're hearing in Chinese media tell us, if anything, about how the Chinese government views all this?

MARCHIONE: Well, I spoke this morning with Alta Charo, who is a very prominent bioethicist from the University of Wisconsin. And she said this morning that the statement from the investigation actually was quite reassuring - that it suggests that there is a system of regulatory controls in China that can be brought to bear on any effort to prematurely use gene-editing technology and that that might be a better way to regulate this field than an outright ban.

CORNISH: What happens to the babies now? And what happens - I believe there was a report that there was a woman who participated who is now pregnant.

MARCHIONE: Well, that's something that was kind of a revelation, again, in the report that we had today from the local authorities. They say that the twins will be followed by Chinese government authorities, health authorities and that the second pregnancy, also, will be monitored and followed.

So this confirms both things that Dr. He has reported. It's unknown how many embryos are left. He did make more than what had been reported to have been used, and it's unclear where they are now or what will happen to them.

CORNISH: Marilynn Marchione is chief medical writer for The Associated Press. Thank you for sharing your reporting with us.

MARCHIONE: Thank you.

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