Following the infamous “He Jiankui Affair”, which resulted in the birth of the first two genetically modified babies, China has just put a veritable screed on the genome editing of human embryos.
In 2018, a Chinese researcher stunned and terrified the entire scientific community by “creating” the first two babies to come into the world after being genetically modified thanks to CRISPR/Cas9, these “molecular scissors” which revolutionized biotechnology and genetics ( see our article). The Chinese authorities immediately dissociated themselves from it, but the shock wave spread at the speed of light – and with it, a wagonload of existential questions.
Traditionally, the Chinese authorities adopt a rather liberal position on the issue of biotechnologies applied to humans; we have seen this again recently with these works which have imagined a “AI nanny” to assist the development of human embryos (see our article).
Its decision-makers now wish to avoid a new global scientific and ethical scandal; China’s all-powerful State Council has thus issued a set of directives which, in short, orders the institutions to improve the ethics training of researchers to avoid a new fiasco.
The He Jiankui affair, a major ethical turning point
As a reminder, it all started in 2019. He Jiankui, an obscure Chinese biotech researcher, picked everyone up cold by announcing that he had edited Lulu and Nana’s genome, two embryonic twins. He thus sought to make them invulnerable to HIV. But even if the objective of this great world premiere (at least in the public sphere) seemed commendable, the announcement had the effect of a real bombboth among researchers and among the general public.
These reactions were largely due to the fact that this work was largely carried out in secret, far from the usual channels of the scientific community. Jiankui was thus able to venture well beyond the ethical boundaries commonly accepted in this discipline. Almost all of his colleagues strongly condemned his work, citing a “premature” decision and “incomprehensible risks”.
It was therefore a real turning point; for the first time, a researcher has knowingly crossed this ethical red line, thus setting a precedent as resounding as it is damaging. Unsurprisingly, the person concerned therefore received a three-year prison sentence. The Chinese government took the opportunity to set up the National Scientific Ethics Committee, a structure whose mission is to put in place safeguards to prevent this scenario from happening again.
An ethical code of conduct
Since then, this committee has been working continuously on a code of good ethical conduct. The document issued by the Chinese State Council represents the “first public and final result” of these efforts, according to XIaomei Zhai, a specialist in bioethics at the Academy of Medical Sciences in Beijing and a member of the commission quoted by Nature.
The objective: to pull the rug out from under the feet of researchers who might be tempted to take liberties in these highly regulated ethical disciplines. This document has thus removed many of the logic loopholes and regulatory inconsistencies which allowed He Jiankui to carry out his work without any supervision.
This document also changes the financing situation. From now on, institutions can also be held responsible if they finance work of this kind. They will therefore have to carry out an ethical audit before committing themselves. And for offenders, the consequences will be terrible. The document not only plans to cut all sources of funding to the laboratories concerned, but also to put the actors concerned in prison and even to their withdraw their academic titles!
The international community (partially) reassured
These recommendations have generally been very positively received by the international community. Indeed, following the actions of the renegade researcher, there had been a particularly uncomfortable period of vagueness; there was indeed a widespread fear that this episode would mark the beginning of a vast policy called “positive eugenics”, which consists in favoring the birth and procreation of the most “fit” according to arbitrary criteria.
These documents completely close the door to this approach, at least officially. And we can be satisfied with that, because it seems obvious that humanity is still very far from being ready to manage the consequences of unbridled research on this subject.
Despite everything, these documents will not be sufficient on their own, far from it. Note that this is far from the first time that the Chinese authorities have made such recommendations. Even if they weren’t as official until then. From now on, the whole issue will be to ensure that this policy is adhered to.
“It’s a good starting point”, admits Haidan Chen, a specialist in bioethics at Peking University. “But now, the most important thing will be to implement all this”. And that must indeed be an absolute priority for all these fields of research.
A generational revolution with immense implications
Because in essence, the fundamental problem of this affair resides in the fact of allowing humanity to decide on her own genetic future; a slope excessively slippery, even in the event that we miraculously manage to avoid a genetic disaster. After all, the human has already proven many times that she has difficult to plan for the long term. You only have to look at cigarettes, asbestos or fossil fuels to be convinced….
It will be necessary to watch with particular attention the evolution of these problems, as technology improves and mentalities evolve, so as to avoid the many conceivable disaster scenarios.
An idea well summed up by Greg Licholai, professor at Yale University: “It Seems Gene Editing Will Eventually Eliminate All Human Disease… Or Kill The Last Of Us All”. Let’s just hope that humanity will be humble and patient enough not to play with these technologies prematurely!