Bioethics has teeth

I told you that He Jiankui, the Chinese scientist who had been carrying out gene editing on human subjects, was doing bad science and violating lots of ethical restrictions. I was right, obviously, because he was immediately repudiated and arrested by the Chinese government. You might be wondering what happens if you break the rules of bioethics — isn’t it all just an agreement between peers not to meddle in experiments that might cause trouble for each other? Well, now we know: He Jiankui has been tried and sentenced. He’s being fined over $400,000, and is going to prison for three years. Two of his colleagues are also going to jail. They’re also going to get a lifelong ban on doing scientific research with human subjects.

This isn’t just Chinese totalitarianism at work, either. It’s the same in most places.

Robin Lovell-Badge at the Francis Crick Institute in London told the UK Science Media Centre that a prison sentence and fine would also have been the likely penalties if someone had conducted similar work in the UK.

Maybe not everywhere, though. The people who carried out the Tuskegee syphilis study were not punished; the doctors who were paid to tell the public that smoking was safe were not punished; Andrew Wakefield is still roaming free, and is even making movies to spread disinformation; you can lie all you want about climate change. Jiankui seems to have picked the wrong victims, or lacked the corporate backing, to make his violations of human rights ignorable.

P.S. I think a hefty fine and a few years in prison would be the minimal punishment for Wakefield, who is responsible for the deaths of who knows how many children.


  1. says

    Got a long way to go before Wakefield. Our embargo on Iraq, begun under the Clintons, is estimated to have killed half a million children in a very direct, starve-to-death way. When asked about it, Madeleine Albright said it was “worth it” and all our establishment figures on both sides of the aisle have agreed with that assessment.

  2. wzrd1 says

    @1, had he worked with apes as models, blocking SIV infection, he would’ve been hailed as a potential hero in the medical battle against HIV infection. Instead, he tossed ethics to the winds, violated the law and got only a little bit of what he deserves, as our understanding of the CD-4/CCR5 system still is lacking a full understanding of just precisely what he broke by damaging the CCR5 receptor, which then promotes HIV selection to bind to the CXCR4 receptor instead. That receptor cannot be disabled, as it is related to placental implantation and rendering one immune to infection at the cost of extinction makes zero sense.

    In his shoes, I’d have worked with apes and SIV, implanting an allele of CD4 receptor known to have a mutation that allows its normal function, but blocks HIV locking onto the receptor.

    @2, just what, precisely, links warfare, the stupidity behind what initiated a specific war, poor implementation of post-war policies for recovery and a major breach of medical ethics on the part of two fraudsters?
    Other than whataboutism trying to promote a false equivalence?

  3. DanDare says

    @3 callous disregard for human life and punishment of the perps. Seems obvious enough as an abstracted concept.

  4. petesh says

    Even more news has come out, in a long article by Xinhua that I read via Google Translate, which mostly seemed to do a decent job:
    This seems to me to demonstrate that He et al knew they were doing wrong:

    From May to June 2018, He Jiankui and Qin Jinzhou also arranged another two couples to travel to Thailand. Qin Jinzhou injected fertilized eggs of one of the couples with gene-editing reagents and performed embryo transfer at a local hospital in Thailand. They failed and were not pregnant.

    The judgment was particularly (and rightly) strong on the lack of consent (Google stumbles a little but is clear):

    The evidence also shows that when the He Jiankui team recruited HIV-infected people and signed the informed notice, they said that “there is no risk”, “the technology is mature”, and “the results of the previous experiments are safe”, and some other possible risks were not clearly notified. Do your duty to inform you adequately.

    I am unsure whether He Jiankui’s punishment was too harsh or too lenient; I lean to the latter, but that doesn’t really matter. What is important is the fact of the sentencing, which I applaud.

  5. chrislawson says

    Wakefield’s damage will never be quantified. But we do know that his actions led to the deaths of 81 people and injuries to another 5612 people in Samoa alone. He was punished by the GMC, stripping him of his medical license. That’s the limit of the GMC’s powers. Wakefield should also have faced criminal charges. It’s not just about natural justice, it’s about consequences. If he had been convicted it might have prevented his move to the US where he continues to this day to spread anti-vaccine misinformation and gets to date supermodels.

  6. jrkrideau says

    @ 5 petesh
    I am unsure whether He Jiankui’s punishment was too harsh or too lenient; I lean to the latter, but that doesn’t really matter.
    Indeed. The important point is that the behaviour was sanctioned reasonably severely and publicly. Not so much for He Jiankui but as a clear warning to others who might be considering unethical behaviour. They need to know that there are real consequences and that they may get caught.

  7. jamiejag says

    @2, Your child mortality claims debunked here:

    Regardless, an embargo is not a “very direct, starve-to-death way” of killing children. Iraq had a choice of whom to feed properly, if it became an issue. I’m sure Saddam Hussein and his cronies didn’t suffer much.

    Wakefield committed fraud for financial gain, very directly frightened vulnerable populations away from safe, critical medical practices, and continues to provide support to the irrational anti-vaccine conspiracy industry which he now relies on to line his pockets.

  8. jrkrideau says

    @ 9
    Your child mortality claims debunked here:
    No not debunked but certainly called into question.
    Still, Madelaine Albrecht’s statement that the death of 500,000 Iraqi children was worth it, whether the number in accurate or not, is pretty damning.

  9. jamiejag says


    From her book Madam Secretary, she responds to criticism:

    I must have been crazy; I should have answered the question by reframing it and pointing out the inherent flaws in the premise behind it. Saddam Hussein could have prevented any child from suffering simply by meeting his obligations…. As soon as I had spoken, I wished for the power to freeze time and take back those words. My reply had been a terrible mistake, hasty, clumsy and wrong. Nothing matters more than the lives of innocent people. I had fallen into the trap and said something I simply did not mean. That was no one’s fault but my own. (p. 275)

    Sometimes, in the heat of an interview people mispeak.