It’s Not Just COVID: China’s Dubious Scientific Ethics
China has become the world capital of ethically dubious scientific research. Perhaps even that is too tactful. More accurately stated, China is the land where science ethics go to die.
Considering the way China harvests the organs of Falun Gong political prisoners and is committing genocide against Muslim Uyghurs, we can hardly be surprised that China’s research sector breaks moral boundaries and shatters world norms. Making matters worse, some in the Western scientific sector are complicit in the immorality by participating in experiments that would or could not be done here — a phenomenon that Stanford University bioethicist William Hurlbut labels “outsourcing ethics.”
China is such a secretive society that it is hard to know the full extent of its rogue behavior. But we know enough to get a general picture of a science sector that seeks to gain commercial and scientific advantage from macabre and dangerous experiments as part of China’s drive to become the world’s dominant country. Amid the coronavirus pandemic, we are now all too familiar with the cavalier defects of China’s opaque approach to virology and its tyrannically dangerous cover-up of both how the virus originated and then escaped into the world community. China’s obstinacy continues to the moment of this writing. Authorities there have just rejected the WHO’s request to conduct a second investigation of the Wuhan lab — after its first utterly failed attempt earlier this year to get to the bottom of the outbreak. In a bitter irony, China’s vice-minister of health, Zeng Yixin, denigrated the request as exhibiting a “disrespect for common sense and arrogance towards science.” But China’s refusal to cooperate is the true “disrespect toward science” as well as a blatant denigration of fundamental scientific ethics. Frighteningly, this isn’t the only area where the nation’s scientists are skirting scientific boundaries.
Germ-Line Genetically Engineering Babies
When Chinese scientist He Jiankui (known in the research community as JK) proudly announced the birth of the first germ-line genetically engineered human babies — twin girls he had gene-edited while they were embryos — the experiment was immediately decried as unethical because it involved alterations that will pass down the generations.
JK was soon imprisoned for engaging in illegal experimentation — creating the illusion that Chinese authorities were as surprised by the announcement as the rest of the world. But that beggars belief. China is a tyranny and any researcher of JK’s stature would surely have been, shall we say, “observed” by the authorities who oversee China’s burgeoning biotechnology sector.
That is certainly the opinion of Ryan Ferrell, an American public-relations professional who advised JK in China regarding issues related to the experiment and who has subsequently worked with several academics in the United States to study the circumstances that led to the scientist’s imprisonment. While Ferrell doubts that knowledge of the pending birth went as high as Chinese leader Xi Jinping, he told me that it was certainly discussed “with midlevel bureaucrats who exercise tremendous power” in Chinese society “including a founder of the ‘Thousand Talents’ Plan, who remains at his post.” (Thousand Talents recruits scientists from overseas and offers funding in return for access to the technologies they develop.)
“This was known to the central government and it was known to local government,” Ferrell says. While JK “did conduct a surreptitious trial that was hidden from the host medical institution until a week or so after the birth of the twins,” he believes China’s national-security apparatus was very aware of what was coming. “JK didn’t entirely hide what he was doing. He spoke publicly about his work in coffee shops. He discussed it on WeChat [the Chinese direct messaging app used ubiquitously by the Chinese people and spied upon by authorities]. JK was punished because of the stink.”
Why might Chinese science sector wink at such experiments? Ferrell says that Chinese leaders are very interested in “improving the quality of the population” — in other words, eugenics. Perfecting CRISPR engineering in humans would unquestionably further that goal. That being so, I suggested to Ferrell that if the public reaction to JK’s announcement had been applause instead of brickbats, the scientist would have been made the head of a lab instead of languishing behind bars. Ferrell didn’t disagree.
I also believe that most of the anger had to do with the timing of the announcement, not what was done. Germ-line genetic engineering in humans has been blessed by, among others, the influential National Academy of Sciences (the influential private nonprofit organization charged by federal law with providing advice to the nation on matters relating to science and technology) — an opinion to which JK pointed in his own defense. Most recently, the WHO also endorsed ongoing germ-line genetic engineering research in “jurisdictions with domestic policy and oversight mechanisms.” Such work would probably not be done at present in the West. But don’t be surprised if, after the heat subsides, another Chinese lab announces the birth of genetically engineered human children with alterations easier to defend medically than that produced by JK.
Animal Experimentation in Males Giving Birth
Two Shanghai-based researchers recently announced proudly in a pre-peer reviewed published paper, “For the first time, a mammalian animal model of male pregnancy was constructed by us.”
This macabre experiment involved rats. The males were castrated, and uteruses were transplanted into their bodies. Surgery then symbiotically attached the rodents to female rats to ensure that the females’ blood nurtured the organs now in the male bodies. After that, rat embryos made via IVF were implanted into the uteruses now in the males’ bodies. The pups were gestated in the transplanted uteruses, then delivered via Caesarian section. Several of them reportedly survived.
Was the need to determine whether a male mammal could be manipulated so that he gave birth of such scientific importance to justify experimenting on the animals in this way? China is obsessed with learning about developmental biology. But does potentially gaining such knowledge justify what was done? No! The research, funded by National Natural Science Foundation of China, was unvarnished animal abuse. As such, it should be decried by all people who understand the human obligation to treat animals in our care humanely.
Moreover, and relevant to the animal-abuse issue, what great human need was furthered by the experiment? None that I can perceive. There may be a fringe desire in the Western world by some in the transgender movement to enable biological males who identify as women to access the full panoply of female experiences, including giving birth. Indeed, some in bioethics consider that prospect to be a human right. But China does not seem particularly focused on that issue. Regardless of motive, there are certain boundaries that should not be crossed — if not for moral reasons but to protect future children who could be harmed as a result of experiments sparked by this research if gestated in the unnatural environment of a biological male’s body.
Making Human/Monkey Chimera Embryos
Chinese and American scientists have also created human/monkey embryos by injecting human stem cells into macaque embryos. This potentially ethically fraught research has a beneficent purpose — to see if animals can be developed to grow organs suitable for transplant. (This is also being attempted with pigs, for example.) But what if human brain structures also develop, conceivably “elevating” the animals’ consciousness beyond normal monkey capacities? This may have happened already, to a minor degree. The Chinese scientists reported that their chimeric monkeys exhibited better short-term memories than “normal” macaques. Or, what if the monkey produces human-compatible sperm or eggs, as some observers worry? That hasn’t happened — yet — but that doesn’t mean it won’t. Experiments performed in China are limited by fewer ethical boundaries than experiments conducted in the U.S. It seems to me that there are significant ethical concerns with these experiments going forward.
Gene-Harvesting without Consent
A bombshell report recently released by Reuters accused a Chinese company called BGI Group — which produces the world’s most commonly used prenatal genetic tests — of sharing data about mothers derived from blood tests with China’s military and other government-funded gene databases. Why do that? “As science pinpoints new links between genes and human traits,” Reuters reported, “access to the biggest, most diverse set of human genomes is a strategic edge. The technology could propel China to dominate global pharmaceuticals, and also potentially lead to genetically enhanced soldiers, or engineered pathogens to target U.S. population or food supply.” Yikes!
BGI denies the story. But given that China has — as Ryan Farrell says — a distinct interest in eugenics, that the Wuhan lab engaged in gain-of-function research, that China denies its pogrom against the Uyghurs, which is indisputable, and that the Chinese social-media video-posting app TikTok is known to surveil its users, why should BGI’s protests of innocence be accepted as credible?
Considering that China, perhaps excepting North Korea, is the world’s most opaque society, who knows what we will next discover about China’s unethical scientific sector? Are the nation’s scientists engaging in immoral human-subject research? No one knows, but if the country would countenance live-organ harvesting of Falun Gong, why not?
The time has come to hit the brakes. The question is: How? Here are some steps we could take:
- Major science and medical journals should refuse to publish papers from Chinese researchers and their Western counterparts about experiments conducted in China, unless the researchers demonstrate conclusively that the experiments were ethically approved by appropriate oversight boards in keeping with published ethical guidelines.
- Similarly, Chinese scientists should not be invited to symposia without proper proof that they are engaged in ethical scientific endeavors.
- American and other Western researchers should not be permitted to outsource their ethical responsibilities to China; that is, they should only receive funding for experiments conducted there that would also receive ethical approval and/or public funding here. Better yet, don’t outsource experiments to China at all.
- Western scientists should be legally required to disclose any funding or other collaboration in which they engage with China, including participation in the Thousand Talents Plan.
- The NIH should no longer be allowed to fund hazardous research in China, as it did the “gain of function” work that was the subject of the definitional dispute between Senator Rand Paul and Dr. Anthony Fauci.
- The U.S. should seek to curb unethical experimentation through personalized financial sanctions against Chinese scientists, corporate executives, educators, and others involved in unethical scientific research and/or human rights violations.
Finally, the West needs to listen to expert China observers such as Nina Shea, Hudson Institute senior fellow and director of its Center for Religious Freedom, who told me that “it is suicidal for the West to continue to allow and even support China’s unethical and dangerous scientific pursuits, many of which are threats to our national security interests, whether they succeed or go awry.”
China is no friend of scientific ethics, human freedom, or a truly beneficent international order. It is high time that the world started treating the country accordingly.