Disgraced doctor who gene edited babies gets Hong Kong talent visa to explore options

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The disgraced Chinese scientist who created the world’s first genetically altered babies has received a top talent visa to work in Hong Kong.

He Jiankui, a researcher who drew widespread condemnation worldwide when he revealed his experiment in 2018, was granted the work permit in early February under the city’s newly launched Top Talent Pass Scheme. At a press briefing Tuesday in Beijing, Jiankui said he plans to explore potential opportunities to work in Hong Kong on gene therapies for rare diseases.

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“I am currently contacting Hong Kong’s universities, research institutions and companies,” Jiankui said. “If there’s confirmed, suitable opportunities, I will consider coming to work in Hong Kong.”

In 2019, He was sentenced to three years in prison. He received a lifelong ban on working in reproductive technology and a 3 million yuan ($436,380) fine by a Chinese court for “illegal medical practice.”

He’s previous work, when he edited the genes of embryos to create babies that were resistant to the virus that causes AIDS, was sharply criticized by the international scientific community. It was denounced as an abuse of the newly emerging gene-engineering tools and methods that still aren’t fully understood.

He recruited couples with HIV who didn’t want to pass the disease to their offspring for his experimental work. Two women became pregnant and three gene-edited babies were born.

Visa Risk

The renewed controversy tied to the discredited scientist risks tainting the high-profile policy Hong Kong’s leaders crafted to counter a talent exodus. Since 2020, tens of thousands of people have left the city after pandemic curbs and national security laws restricted activities. Among those who departed were the bankers, lawyers and other professionals that helped make the city a freewheeling, international entrepot.

Hong Kong started the new visa program on December 28. More than 10,000 applications have been filed and at least 7,700 were approved, Hong Kong Economic Times reported last week.

The visa scheme “seeks to attract top talents with rich work experience and good academic qualifications from all over the world to explore opportunities in Hong Kong,” according to the website for Hong Kong’s Immigration Department. An applicant should meet normal immigration requirements including being “of clear criminal record and raise no security or criminal concerns to Hong Kong,” it says.

Hong Kong’s Secretary for Labour and Welfare, Chris Sun, told reporters Tuesday that applicants under the scheme currently aren’t required to provide their criminal records. Authorities review and adjust the procedure from time to time, he said, declining to comment on an individual case.

Sun added that any false statements in application could lead to visas being revoked.

The researcher is working with artificial intelligence technology to bring down the cost of gene therapies, a different approach to treating harmful mutations in a person’s genetic makeup. He said he is aware of the attention surrounding his efforts and vowed to follow the law, as well as moral and international consensus.

“I plan to organize an international ethics advisory committee to review my future scientific research projects and ensure openness and transparency,” he said in response to media questions.

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