China has been using an equation to produce fake organ donation data, according to researchers who used a forensic technique that sniffs out suspicious patterns in statistical datasets.
New research published yesterday in BMC Medical Ethics is raising concerns that China is continuing to harvest organs from executed prisoners, despite the country’s assurances to the contrary. Exploiting prisoners in this way is obviously deplorable, but it’s extra heinous considering some of these detainees might be prisoners of conscious, that is, people locked up for their political or religious beliefs.
The scientists responsible for this research, a team led by Matthew Robertson from the Australian National University, came to this upsetting conclusion after taking a deep statistical dive into recent Chinese hospital datasets pertaining to organ donations and transplants. Robertson and his colleagues used a technique known as forensic statistics to flag anomalous or dubious data.
“This is all highly suggestive evidence of data manufacturing and manipulation that could only have been done by human intervention,” said Robertson in a press release. “The patterns we observed in the data can only be plausibly explained by the falsification of official organ transplant figures.”
Back in 2010, the Chinese government said it was going to change the way it procures organs, and since then it has been rolling out a voluntary organ donation program (by the end of the 2000s, more than 65 per cent of organs were obtained from death row prisoners). Chinese officials claimed that, as of January 2015, the exclusive source of donor organs would come from hospital rather than prison settings, namely from patients who had been declared dead due to natural causes. The new study was an effort to corroborate this commitment.
To do so, the ANU researchers looked at volunteer organ donation datasets from 2010 to 2018, namely data provided by the China Organ Transplant Response System (COTRS) and the Red Cross Society of China (the researchers obtained this data from the China Organ Donation Administrative Centre website). COTRS manages and tracks every organ donation and transplant, and the Red Cross is mandated to verify and witness these donations.
The researchers scoured this data, looking for signs of manipulation, such as the data being produced by simple maths formulas, arbitrary ratios, weird data artifacts, and other signs of improper data handling.
The results were unambiguous.
The COTRS data corresponded “almost precisely to a mathematical formula,” as the authors wrote in the study, which was later confirmed to be consistent with the results of a simple quadratic equation. The same held true for the Red Cross data, “albeit imperfectly.” In total, “contradictory, implausible, or anomalous data” were found in five datasets, which was likely done to “enforce conformity with central quotas,” according to the paper.
“Our research shows Beijing’s reported organ donation numbers don’t stack up and there is highly compelling evidence that they are being falsified,” said Robertson in the press release. “When you take a close look at the numbers of organs apparently collected they almost match this artificial equation point for point, year in, year out. They’re too neat to be true. These figures don’t appear to be real data from real donations. They’re numbers generated using an equation. It is difficult to imagine how this model could have been arrived at by mere chance, raising the distinct possibility that it was intended to deceive.”
These results were verified by an outside statistician, David Spiegelhalter, the former president of the Royal Statistical Society in the UK, who said the “close agreement” of the numbers with a quadratic equation “is remarkable,” according to the press release.
Other glitches in the data included impossibly high ratios of transplants per donors, mismatches in what were intended to be identical datasets, and the misclassification of non-voluntary organ donors as voluntary.
In terms of what’s going on, the researchers suspect a system now exists in China where organs are being obtained through volunteers, but also through nefarious channels, namely the forced organ removal of death row prisoners. The falsified data suggests China is trying to disguise this ugly fact.
“Thus, rather than the solely prisoner-based organ transplant system of years past, or the untarnished voluntary system promised by officials, the available evidence indicates in our view that China has a complex hybrid transplant program: voluntary donations, incentivized by large cash payments, are apparently used alongside nonvoluntary donors who are marked down as citizen donors,” wrote the authors in the study.
Troublingly, these findings are consistent with another recent investigation. In June of this year, a tribunal led by Sir Geoffrey Nice QC, a former UN war crimes prosecutor, concluded that “in China forced organ harvesting from prisoners of conscience has been practiced for a substantial period of time involving a very substantial number of victims,” as reported in Forbes.
As Robertson noted in the press release, “we think it is important the world take a closer look at China’s organ transplantation system.” Indeed, the international community needs to take notice and pressure China accordingly. Organs are a scarce and valuable resource, but there are better, more humane ways to help patients in need.