China focuses on ethics to deter another ‘CRISPR babies’ scandal

Smriti Mallapaty
This news item from Nature describes a new ethics statement from the State Council of China. Bioethicists read this statement as a response to the He Jiankui affair and his recent release from prison following a three-year sentence. The statement is the first publicized product of the National Science and Technology Ethics Committee that was established in the wake of the revelation of He’s experiments. It seeks to address the ambiguous nature of the regulatory environment in which He conducted his experiments. It does so by recommending the creation of a new ethics association as well as by calling for existing institutions to more vigilantly and strictly enforce existing laws and regulations. The statement was met with relief from some in the bioethics community, while also raising some concerns that this would force ethically questionable or potentially impermissible research underground. Like the WHO’s recommendations, this concern includes desire for increased protection for whistleblowers. Taken together, these indicate steps to harmonize China’s approach to biological research ethics with the rest of the world. However, in addition to the sstatement’s overall vagueness, the legal and ethical lag behind developments in novel biotechnology remains an issue with the suggested approaches. It was not clear at the time, for example, whether He's experiments were in violation of existing laws. Further, the concerns some researchers have raised about chilling effects on scientific research also suggest resistance to these measures.