The New York TimesDec 30, 2019 14:06:07 IST
A court in China on Monday sentenced He Jiankui, the researcher who shocked the global scientific community when he claimed that he had created the world’s first genetically edited babies, to three years in prison for carrying out "illegal medical practices."
In a surprise announcement from a trial that was closed to the public, the court in the southern city of Shenzhen found He guilty of forging approval documents from ethics review boards to recruit couples in which the man had HIV and the woman did not, state broadcaster China Central Television reported. He had said he was trying to prevent HIV infections in newborns, but the state media Monday said he deceived the subjects and the medical authorities alike.
He sent the scientific world into an uproar last year when he announced at a conference in Hong Kong that he had created the world’s first genetically edited babies — twin girls. On Monday, China’s state media said his work had resulted in a third genetically edited baby, who had been previously undisclosed.
He pleaded guilty and was also fined $430,000, according to Xinhua, China’s official news agency. In a brief trial, the court also handed down prison sentences to two other scientists who it said had “conspired” with him: Zhang Renli, who was sentenced to two years in prison, and Qin Jinzhou, who got 1 1/2 years.
He's declaration made him a pariah among scientists and drew scrutiny to China’s scientific ambitions. Though He offered no proof and did not share any evidence or data that definitively proved he had done it, his colleagues had said it was possible that he had succeeded.
During the Hong Kong conference, He said he used in vitro fertilization to create human embryos that were resistant to HIV, the virus that causes AIDS. He said he did it by using the Crispr-Cas9 editing technique to deliberately disable a gene, known as CCR₅, that is used to make a protein HIV needs to enter cells.
The international condemnation from the scientific community that followed He’s announcement came because many nations, including the United States, had banned such work, fearing it could be misused to create “designer babies” and alter everything from eye color to IQ.
Although it is not against the law to do so in China, the practice is opposed by many researchers there. China’s vice minister of science and technology said last year that He’s scientific activities would be suspended, calling his conduct “shocking and unacceptable.” A group of 122 Chinese scientists called He’s actions “crazy” and his claims “a huge blow to the global reputation and development of Chinese science.”
The court said the trial had to be closed to the public to guard the privacy of the people involved.
He’s whereabouts had been something of a mystery for the past year. After his announcement, he was placed under guard in a small university guesthouse in Shenzhen and he has made no statements since. But his conviction was a foregone conclusion after the government said its initial investigation had found that He had “seriously violated” state regulations.
Sui-Lee Wee. c.2019 The New York Times Company
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