Chinese ‘gene-editing’ scientist raises eyebrows by promoting sperm washing for HIV-positive couples

By Zhang Hui Source:Global Times Published: 2018/12/19 18:40:03

A baby is delivered on the morning of December 2 in Guangzhou, South China's Guangdong Province, by an HIV-infected mother who undertook PMTCT treatment. PMTCT reduces the risk of infant HIV infection to close to zero. Photo: VCG

Chinese researcher He Jiankui, who claimed to help create the world's first gene-edited babies, is drawing attention to another controversial practice — sperm washing.

Some HIV-infected couples in China go to foreign countries and have their sperm "washed" to prevent the virus from being passed to their child.

According to a report by Sanlian Life Weekly Magazine, He, an associate professor of the Southern University of Science and Technology's biology department, claimed that he could do semen washing and in-vitro fertilization (IVF) for couples in which the man is HIV positive and the woman is HIV negative for free.

He could save them hundreds of thousands of yuan it would cost to undergo the procedure in foreign hospitals.

In this way, he managed to attract 200 volunteers. From them, he selected seven couples for his experiment that he claims helped to create gene-edited babies.

China bans semen washing and IVF for HIV-infected couples for reasons including a relatively small market demand, challenging techniques and ethical considerations, Chinese analysts said.

Instead, China offers free prevention of mother-to-child transmission (PMTCT) for such couples, which has a very high success rate in blocking the HIV transmission from parents to babies. However, some Chinese couples, due to a lack of awareness about PMTCT and privacy concerns, turn to sperm washing. 

Easy to find

Advertisements for clinics in countries like Thailand that offer sperm washing and IVF could be easily found on Chinese social media platforms on Tuesday.

Searches for keywords "overseas" and "sperm washing" generated 276,000 results on China's search engine

A Shenzhen-based agency that helps couples with HIV-positive husbands and HIV-negative wives to have children in Thailand claimed that it has successfully helped around 50 such couples have their children since 2011.

"We cooperate with many hospitals in Thailand to conduct semen washing and follow-up IVF, and such couples can have healthy babies and also can choose the gender of the baby," a sales agent surnamed Chen told the Global Times reporter posing as a client.

The total expense will be 100,000 yuan or more depending on the health conditions of the client, Chen said.

Questions and answers on the experience of having sperm washed in foreign countries could be found on Baidu Tieba, a Chinese communication platform.

Chang Kun, founder of AIBO AIDS Relief, a Beijing-based NGO offering legal services for HIV positive people, told the Global Times on Tuesday that some HIV-infected couples have consulted him for sperm washing and IVF, but he always suggested they turn to PMTCT.

"Some HIV-infected couples did not know PMTCT works well for both an HIV-positive wife and an HIV-positive husband, and some who identified themselves as public servants and celebrities feared that receiving free PMTCT could expose their privacy," said Chang, explaining the reasons for people to consider sperm washing.

According to the World Health Organization (WHO), conception via semen washing is one of the options for parenthood for couples in which the man is HIV-positive and the woman HIV-negative.

And 23 studies, most of which were performed in Europe, showed that between 0 percent and 20 percent of the semen samples tested positive for HIV after semen washing.

Since HIV can, theoretically, remain undetected, semen washing can greatly reduce the risk of infection, but cannot completely exclude it, according to the WHO.

Illegal and unnecessary 

Hu Minhua, head nurse at Nanchang No.9 People's Hospital in East China's Jiangxi Province who promotes HIV awareness on China's Twitter-like Weibo, told the Global Times that there are no hospitals in China conducting semen washing for HIV-infected couples due to the relatively small market demand as well as ethical considerations. Hu said that semen washing requires a significant financial layout for couples.

Yang Zhengrong, director of the HIV and AIDS prevention department at the Shenzhen Center for Disease Control and Prevention, said that the technique itself — semen washing and IVF for HIV-infected couples — is difficult for doctors to perform in Chinese hospitals, the Nandu Daily reported on November 26.

The former Ministry of Health issued the Assisted Reproductive Technology Regulation in 2003 which stipulated that IVF cannot be performed for couples with one or both partners infected with acute urinary tract infections or sexually transmitted infections. According to the WHO, HIV is a sexually transmitted infections.

The primary issue for HIV-positive couples who want biological children is to receive antivirus medication to control the viral load, and then consult doctors for PMTCT and follow-up tracking measures for the new-born child, according to Hu.

PMTCT can almost completely block the transmission from mother to child in China, and in Shanghai, the success rate is 100 percent, Lu Hongzhou, director of the Shanghai Center for AIDS Diagnosis and Treatment, told the Shanghai Morning Post on November 28.
Newspaper headline: Not an option

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