A British geneticist is worried that He Jiankui—the Chinese scientist responsible for the birth of genetically modified human twins — could face the death penalty for corruption and bribery charges.
When He Jiankui went missing back in early December, we suspected big trouble ahead for the rogue scientist, but as Sarah Knapton reports in the Telegraph, his predicament is even worse than we thought.
The embattled scientist is reportedly living under armed guard at a state-owned apartment in Shenzhen, China, according to geneticist Robin Lovell-Badge of the Francis Crick Institute in London, who now worries that He could face the death penalty for his indiscretions.
Twin girls born earlier this month had their DNA altered to prevent them from contracting HIV, according to an Associated Press report. If confirmed, the births would signify the first gene-edited babies in human history — a stunning development that’s sparking an outcry from scientists and ethicists.
Back in November 2018, Lovell-Badge organised the Second International Summit on Human Genome Editing at the University of Hong Kong. Upon hearing rumours of He’s controversial work, Lovell-Badge decided to invite the 34-year-old scientist and biotech entrepreneur to the summit in hopes of tempering his enthusiasm, or as he told the Telegraph, to “control his urges.” During the summit, He admitted to using the CRISPR/Cas9 gene-editing tool to modify human embryos that are now twin babies. The genetically modified humans—the world’s first — are allegedly immune to HIV owing to the deletion of the CCRA gene, which could make the twin girls more vulnerable to influenza, among other known and unknown health problems.
He said he was proud of the work when he spoke at the summit, despite accusations that the research was done prematurely, that the experiments were conducted in secret, and that he failed to go through the normal channels, among other claims.
The Telegraph reports that scientists in the UK close to the situation said that He could face corruption and bribery charges, both of which carry the death penalty in China. In addition, He may face charges of violating established research guidelines, which he did by implanting the genetically modified embryos in the mother instead of destroying them as per convention. In China, state guidelines carry the same legal weight as established laws, according to the Telegraph.
“There is an official investigation led by the ministries of science and health,” Lovell-Badge told the Telegraph. “Lots of people are probably going to lose their jobs, he wasn’t the only one involved in this obviously. So how has he got them to do all this work? He could be had up on all sorts of charges of corruption and being guilty of corruption in China these days is not something you want to be,” adding that “Quite a few people have lost their heads for corruption.”
Indeed, the Chinese government has been cracking down on endemic corruption throughout the country, including in scientific research. In early 2018, the government introduced new reforms, including the introduction of a list of offenders, the members of which could be barred from receiving grants or research positions. And in December, China announced that its controversial social credit system would be used to target rule-breaking scientists.
Lovell-Badge said He has been staying at the university-owned apartment since early December, and that “quite a number” of armed guards are involved. It’s not clear of He is under house arrest or if he’s being protected by the guards, as the rogue scientist has faced death threats, the Telegraph reports.
He, a trained physicist, had plenty of his own cash to the fund the research, allowing him to hire the required lab technicians and IVF doctors to do the work.
“Here you have a physicist who knows little biology, is very rich, has a huge ego, wants to be the first at doing something that will change the world,” Lovell-Badge told the Telegraph.
Chinese officials will have to determine the degree to which these collaborators knew about the project and its illegality to determine culpability.
He should be accountable for his actions, but the death penalty, should it come down to that, would be undeniably excessive. It would be unfortunate for He to be turned into some kind of scapegoat—a convenient pawn for the government and its officials to defer responsibility for underlying systemic and regulatory issues. Yes, He acted irresponsibly, but the issue now shouldn’t only be about punishments—it should also be about finding ways to prevent something like this from happening again.