Eyes on China to strengthen biotech ethics through legislation

By Li Qingqing Source:Global Times Published: 2019/1/22 20:23:40

A preliminary investigation into claims of genetically edited babies shows that researcher He Jiankui defied government bans and conducted research in pursuit of personal fame and gain, according to Xinhua on Monday. Those suspected of committing crimes will be transferred to the public security department, the report said. He's case has challenged China's code of ethics and regulations. The result not only shows that China values the ethics of biotechnology, but also reflects China's resolution in seriously dealing with such cases.

Science is noble, and it should tally with the morals and interests of human beings. Although He claimed he felt proud of his gene-editing work, he has brought huge uncertainties not only to the two babies, but also to all mankind. It is extremely irresponsible that He has left unknown fears for all human beings to handle. If He only regards science as a stepping stone to fame and defies ethics and bans, then he deserves severe punishment.

He's work has imposed adverse effects on China's scientific ethics. More importantly, it opened a Pandora's Box of human genome editing. Now that there is a "modern-day Frankenstein," our law should keep pace with breakthroughs in the area. Chinese President Xi Jinping said in a speech on Monday that efforts should be made to accelerate establishing an early warning and monitoring system to ensure scientific and technological security, as well as to promote the legislation work concerning artificial intelligence, gene editing, medical diagnosis, autopilot, drones and service robots.

In 2003, China released a document that forbids gene editing of human embryos for reproduction. But it still lacks strong enforcement or punishment. We have to admit that China's current laws and regulations haven't kept pace with rapidly developing science. To make sure that such cases won't happen again, China should treat He's case seriously and promote legislation.

Human genome editing is prohibited by official order in many countries. In Canada, according to the 2004 Assisted Human Reproduction Act, anyone who alters the genome of a cell of a human being is liable to imprisonment for a term not exceeding 10 years. In Australia's Prohibition of Human Cloning for Reproduction Act 2002, a person faces imprisonment up to 15 years if he or she makes heritable alterations to a genome. Nevertheless, the world still lacks a mature model for regulating gene-editing. The whole world is still exploring.

According to He, there is another potential pregnancy, which means there is now another woman carrying a gene-edited baby in China. 

What should we do with these babies? Some people suggested that they should be supervised their whole lives, and others believe this is unnecessary as only two or three people's genes won't affect the whole human gene pool. China still needs to solicit professional opinions worldwide. Facing the world's first gene-edited babies, China must be prudent as there's no experience to use for reference.

The world's attention is on China now. As a responsible major country, China must value the ethics of biotechnology, promote legislation, try to reduce uncertainties and close Pandora's Box.

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