Hong Kong revokes visa for man behind gene-edited baby claims

BEIJING (AP) – Hong Kong on Tuesday revoked a visa it granted to a Chinese researcher who sparked an ethics debate five years ago with claims he created the world’s first genetically edited babies, withdrawing it hours after he announced his research plans in financial junction point.

He Jiankui shocked the world in 2018 when he announced that he had altered the embryos of twin girls, with many in the scientific community criticizing his work as unethical. He was convicted by a Chinese court in 2019 of practicing medicine without a license and sentenced to three years in prison with a fine of 3 million yuan ($445,000).

Ten months after his release, he announced in Beijing on Tuesday that he had obtained a visa to Hong Kong and was in contact with universities, research institutes and companies in the financial hub.

He said he would consider working in Hong Kong if there was a suitable opportunity and plans to research gene therapy for rare inherited diseases.

“My scientific research will be in accordance with the ethical codes and international consensus on scientific research,” he said at a brief press conference.

But in a statement hours later in which it did not refer to He by name but said it was responding to reports of a visa applicant being jailed for illegal medical practice, the Hong Kong government said it had revoked the visa.

“After the immigration department reviewed the application, they suspected that someone had made false statements to obtain visa approval,” the statement read. “The Director of Immigration has declared the visa invalid in accordance with the law.”

Law enforcement officers would conduct a criminal investigation to follow up on the case, it added.

He did not immediately respond to a request from The Associated Press for comment.

His announcement in 2018 sparked a global debate about the ethics of gene editing. In interviews with the Associated Presssaid he had used a tool called CRISPR to try to disable a gene that allows HIV to enter cells in an effort to give the babies the ability to resist AIDS.

The CRISPR tool has been tested elsewhere in adults to treat diseases, but many in the scientific community criticized He’s work as medically unnecessary and unethical, in part because any genetic changes could be passed on to future generations.

When he was sentenced in 2019, the Chinese court in Shenzhen said he had not qualified as a doctor, had sought fame and profit, deliberately violated Chinese rules for scientific research and crossed an ethical line in both scientific research and medicine. The court also confirmed a third birth, saying his project involved three gene-edited babies born to two women.

He was released last April and was invited to speak at the University of Oxford next month. But he wrote on Twitter this month that he was not ready to share his experiences over the past three years and decided to cancel the visit.

He invited about six media organizations to his press conference on Tuesday, but left after reading a statement for about two minutes. He did not answer questions when he left.

In a later written response, he said he plans to form an ethics advisory committee to review his future work and ensure the process is open and transparent.

He said he plans to research Duchenne muscular dystrophy, a genetic disorder that he said often causes people to die of heart and lung failure in their 20s. No medicine can cure the disease, but gene therapy can help, he said.

He said his team hopes to use AI tools to improve gene therapy and reduce the cost of the treatment to make it affordable for every family.

Earlier in Hong Kong, granting visas to He under a new program to woo global talent raised concerns that recipients may have criminal records.

According to the immigration department, applicants should meet standard immigration requirements, including having a “clear criminal record” and bringing “no security or criminal concerns” to Hong Kong.

Hong Kong Labor Minister Chris Sun declined to comment on individual cases, but acknowledged that applicants have not had to disclose any criminal records in the application process. He said applicants must do so starting Wednesday.


Leung reported from Hong Kong.

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