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China approves ethics advisory group after CRISPR-babies scandal

Bioethicists hope a national committee will help close loopholes in the country’s biomedical ethics regulations.

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China will establish a national committee to advise the government on research-ethics regulations. The decision comes less than a year after a Chinese scientist sparked an international outcry over claims that he had created the world’s first genome-edited babies.

The country's most powerful policymaking body, the Central Comprehensively Deepening Reforms Commission of the ruling Chinese Communist Party, headed by President Xi Jinping, approved at the end of last month a plan to form the committee. According to Chinese media, it will strengthen the coordination and implementation of a comprehensive and consistent system of ethics governance for science and technology.

The government has released few details on how the committee will work. But Qiu Renzong, a bioethicist at the Chinese Academy of Social Science in Beijing, says it could help to reduce the fragmentation in biomedical ethics regulations across ministries, identifying loopholes in the enforcement of regulations and advise the government on appropriate punishments for those who violate the rules.

Currently, the National Health Commission (NHC) is in charge of ethics rules for biomedical research in humans, whereas the Ministry of Science and Technology (MOST) regulates most other bioethical issues, including experiments on animals. Research in military hospitals is regulated by the military.

Although the NHC’s ethics rules cover all research in humans in theory, the NHC can only enforce these rules in hospitals and medical institutions, and there are no clear penalties for researchers who break those rules. Academic researchers funded by MOST to do research on humans in universities can have their grants revoked if they do not follow NHC rules. But ethicists say there is little coordination between NHC and MOST and so breaches fall through the cracks.

These gaps came under scrutiny last November when biophysicist He Jiankui announced the birth of twin girls with edited genomes. Chinese and international researchers condemned the experiments, which broke NHC rules: He faked an ethics review approval, according to a investigation by the Guangdong health ministry. Bioethicists also say the informed consent he obtained from the volunteer parents was invalid.

Ethics proposal

In light of the controversy, Qiu and colleagues proposed the creation of a national committee on bioethics to the Chinese Communist Party’s leadership earlier this year. The bioethicists suggested the body consist of scientists, physicians, ethicists, philosophers, lawyers and policy advisers who would report on ethical issues in emerging technologies. Qiu thinks that the committee’s role will be similar to that of the Nuffield Council on Bioethics in London, which examines emerging issues in research and makes policy recommendations.

Qiu also thinks that the committee will be involved in ethics regulations in other fields, such as artificial intelligence.

Neuroscientist Sun Qiang from the Institute of Neuroscience of the Chinese Academy of Sciences in Shanghai, welcomes the new committee, but fears that it might recommend inappropriate regulations for emerging biomedical technologies. Without committee members who have expertise in the science and ethics of certain fields, their recommendations could stifle innovation and future applications, says Sun, whose work involves cloning monkeys.

doi: 10.1038/d41586-019-02362-5

Updates & Corrections

  • Clarification 08 August 2019: This article has been updated to make clear that He Jiankui's ethics review approval was found to be fake after an investigation by the Guangdong health ministry. And to clarify that He's informed consent is considered invalid by bioethicists, not by the health ministry.

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