Jailed Chinese biophysicist granted research visa by Hong Kong despite controversy over gene-editing babies

Jailed Chinese biophysicist granted research visa by Hong Kong despite controversy over gene-editing babies

BEIJING, CHINA — A Chinese biophysicist who was jailed for creating the world’s first gene-edited babies said on Tuesday he was seeking collaborators after Hong Kong granted him a research visa, to the consternation of the scientific community.

He Jiankui was handed a prison term in 2019 for illegally experimenting on human embryos in a controversial exercise that saw twin girls born with genes he had altered to confer immunity to HIV.

“I am currently contacting Hong Kong’s universities, scientific research organisations and companies,” the 39-year-old told journalists in Beijing.

“If there are definite and suitable opportunities, I will consider working in Hong Kong,” he said, adding that he intends to continue his work on “gene therapy for rare diseases”.

At the weekend the scientist — who was released in April last year — announced he had been granted a visa under a scheme aimed at drawing talent to Hong Kong.

Kiran Musunuru, a leading genetics professor at the University of Pennsylvania, said he was “appalled” at the decision by the semi-autonomous Chinese city.

“He Jiankui is a convicted criminal,” he told AFP, and “woefully incompetent as a scientist”.

“Experimenting on children and causing them genetic damage, as he did, is in my view a form of child abuse.”

The Chinese scientist stunned the scientific community in 2018 by announcing the birth of the genetically engineered twins. A third child who had undergone gene editing was born the following year.

After international condemnation, He, who was educated at Stanford University, was jailed in December 2019 by a Chinese court and fined three million yuan ($430,000).

The court said he had been “illegally carrying out human embryo gene-editing intended for reproduction”, Chinese state media reported at the time.

Two of He’s fellow researchers were also sentenced in 2019. Zhang Renli was handed a two-year jail term and fined one million yuan, while Qin Jinzhou was given 18 months, suspended for two years, and fined 500,000 yuan.

The trio had not obtained qualifications to work as doctors and knowingly violated China’s regulations and ethical principles, according to the court verdict, news agency Xinhua said.

They acted “in the pursuit of personal fame and gain” and seriously “disrupted medical order”, it added.

— AFP

Update: Authorities in Hong Kong said late Tuesday they had cancelled the He’s work visa, throwing cold water on his plans to relocate his research to the city.

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