Work on gene-edited babies blatant violation of the law, says China Vice-minister

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Condemns work of He Jiankui, but Chinese regulations are vague

Chinese authorities have declared the work of He Jiankui, a scientist who claims to have created the world’s first gene-edited babies, a violation of Chinese law and called for the suspension of all related activity.

“The genetically edited infant incident reported by media blatantly violated China’s relevant laws and regulations. It has also violated the ethical bottom line that the academic community adheres to. It is shocking and unacceptable,” Xu Nanping, a vice-minister for science and technology, told the state-owned CCTV on Thursday.

Xu called for the suspension of any scientific or technological activities by those involved in He’s work.

The Southern University of Science and Technology in Shenzhen, where He is an associate professor, has said it had no knowledge of his research.

The scientist has said his project was approved by an ethics committee at Harmonicare Shenzhen women and children’s hospital, which has also denied any involvement.

He shocked the global scientific community when he claimed this week to have edited the genes of embryos that resulted in the birth of twin girls named Lulu and Nana.

However, his work – a byproduct of personal ambition and a vague regulatory environment in a country that has been pushing ahead in the field of gene editing for years – did not come as a total surprise to everyone.

William Hurlbut, a bioethicist at Stanford University who has been in touch with He since an ethics conference last year, said: “I knew that was his long-term goal. I just didn’t think he would push so imprudently. I worried his enthusiasm for what he was doing was so high that he might proceed faster than he should … Now the door is open to this and will never close again. It’s like a hinge of history.”

“He was always first in primary school, middle school, university and after that. He was never second. Always first,” his father told Beijing News. A former colleague of He’s told local media that the three words that best described the scientist were “smart, crazy and genius”.

“He is China’s Musk,” the colleague said, referring to the Tesla co-founder Elon Musk. Other media reports have called him China’s Einstein.

He, who also goes by his initials JK, depended on government and university scholarships to see him through university in China, where he studied physics. He then earned a PhD in physics at Rice University in the US and conducted post-doctoral research in genome sequencing at Stanford University.

He returned to China in 2012 as part of a talent recruitment programme in the technology hub of Shenzhen and because he wanted to improve Chinese research, which he believed was “weak”, according to his father.

He returned to a country that would soon be at the forefront of gene editing, using technology known as Crispr-Cas9.

China is one of only a few countries in the world known to have conducted tests on humans with Crispr.