A controversial Chinese biophysicist, who had been imprisoned after creating the world’s first gene-edited babies, had his Hong Kong work visa revoked after immigration officials suspected he lied on an application form for a talent scheme.
He Jiankui, who sparked an international scientific and ethical debate in 2018 when he revealed he had created the world’s first “gene-edited” babies resistant to HIV, said at the time at an international conference in Hong Kong that he had modified two embryos before they were placed in their mother’s womb.
The scientist said he used a technology known as CRISPR-Cas9 to alter the embryonic genes of twin girls before birth. He said he had targeted a gene known as CCR5 and edited it in a way he believed would protect the girls from infection with HIV, the virus that causes AIDS. It later emerged that a third gene-edited baby had been born.
The former associate professor at the Southern University of Science and Technology — who has since been fired — was later accused of having forged approval documents from ethics boards. He was sentenced by a Chinese court to three years in prison in late 2019 for illegally carrying out human embryo gene-editing intended for reproduction. He was released in April 2022.
The scientist posted on the Chinese social media platform WeChat on Saturday that he had been granted the visa on February 11 under the talent scheme. It was aimed at attracting people with rich work experience and good academic qualifications from all over the world to explore opportunities in Hong Kong.
He said he would conduct gene-editing research using artificial intelligence and was “optimistic about [the future of] Hong Kong,” reported the South China Morning Post. His original post cannot be found.
“We plan to use artificial intelligence tools to evolve the adeno-associated virus (AAV) capsids to improve the efficiency of gene therapy and promote affordable gene therapy for rare diseases,” he was quoted by the paper as saying. AAV is a small virus that has emerged as the most promising platform for gene therapy.
Scientists engineer the outer protein shell of AAV, known as capsid, to improve targeting and efficacy.
In response to the furor, the Hong Kong government issued a late-night statement on Tuesday, saying the visa of an individual who “made false representation” has been rescinded and a criminal investigation launched. Officials did not name He but made reference to media reports regarding an applicant being granted a visa “despite having been imprisoned for illegal medical practice.”
“After reviewing the application, the Immigration Department suspected the visa/entry permit was obtained by false representation, and the Director of Immigration had declared the visa/entry permits invalid in accordance with the law, and would conduct a criminal investigation to follow up,” said the statement.
The statement also warned that applicants who give false information face a maximum sentence of 14 years in prison and a fine of $17,842 upon conviction. The government has also issued a new requirement that future applicants under the visa scheme must declare whether they have any criminal records.
Since his prison release 10 months ago, He has established a laboratory in Beijing dedicated to developing affordable drugs for rare genetic diseases. Although He insisted that his work was to help people, international medical experts have criticized his gene-editing procedure as risky, ethically contentious and medically unjustified with inadequate consent from the families involved.
In a study published in the journal Nature Medicine in June 2019, scientists found that people who have two copies of a so-called “Delta 32” mutation of CCR5 — which protects against HIV infection in some people — also have a significantly higher risk of premature death.
He told The Guardian newspaper early this month that he moved “too quickly” by pressing ahead with the gene-editing procedure but stopped short of apologizing. He declined to elaborate on what measures should have been taken but said he would give further details at a scheduled talk on the use of CRISPR gene-editing technology at the University of Oxford next month.
He then said in a Twitter message on February 10 that he was “not ready to talk about my experience in the past three years, so I decided that I will not visit Oxford in March.”