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China Shrinks From the Gattaca Age

The government has fiercely decried a Shenzhen scientist’s gene editing, in contrast to its push past ethical barriers in AI.

He Jiankui at the Second International Summit on Human Genome Editing in Hong Kong on Nov. 28.

He Jiankui at the Second International Summit on Human Genome Editing in Hong Kong on Nov. 28.

Photographer: Anthony Kwan/Bloomberg

Even in the futuristic discipline of genetic engineering, scientific conferences are generally staid affairs. The Second International Summit on Human Genome Editing, held Nov. 27-29 in Hong Kong, looked like it would be no exception—until a Chinese scientist upended the agenda. On Nov. 26, U.S.-trained, Shenzhen-based He Jiankui announced that he’d altered the genes of a human embryo to create the first so-called designer baby, like something out of the movie Gattaca. Actually, two babies: twin girls from whom He said he’d deleted a gene that makes people susceptible to HIV. The geneticist provided details of his work in a series of YouTube videos; he hasn’t yet published peer-reviewed documentation.

It was a moment many bioethicists had feared was inevitable, particularly in the world’s most populous country. Chinese researchers have experimented prolifically with the Crispr gene-editing technique since its 2012 discovery, fueling concerns among Western scientists that they might blow past the consensus on how to do so safely and ethically. Many of the field’s leaders were predictably outraged. Jennifer Doudna, Crispr’s co-inventor, called He’s actions “truly unacceptable.”