Hong Kong gene testing companies under probe after ‘exaggerated’ claims of being able to identify children’s abilities

Christy Leung
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Hong Kong gene testing companies under probe after ‘exaggerated’ claims of being able to identify children’s abilities

Eight companies offering genetic testing in Hong Kong are under investigation by authorities after they were accused of exaggerating claims that they could map out talents and character traits in children.

Two of the firms, Re:health and Genedecode, boasted commercials featuring star doctors such as Tony Mok Shu-kam, a top oncologist and Chinese University professor.

The Democratic Party’s Ramon Yuen Hoi-man earlier slammed the companies for misleading customers by claiming to be able to analyse intelligence and strengths in children through oral or blood samples, with an accuracy of 99 per cent.

According to advertisements by the companies, genetic mapping can identify talent and indicate character, such as whether a child is an optimist, so parents can figure out early how to raise their kids. The price tags of such tests ranged from HK$4,000 to HK$81,640 (US$10,400).

Yuen and his team went to Re:health last month and were told by a staff member that a report ordered by a client would be ready in two months after oral samples were tested in the United States.

“The database in the gene can tell you everything about your kid’s character and talents,” the woman was secretly filmed saying.

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“We will then arrange a family trainer, someone like a psychologist, to go through the report with you ... They are qualified child psychologists ... They are not doctors, but experts.”

Citing a report by King’s College London, Yuen said genetic testing for such purposes had no scientific backing and violated children’s rights, raising a moral issue. Parents who bought into the concept could make bad decisions for their kids, he added.

In a statement released on Monday night, Re:health said all its products and services were strictly scrutinised and up to standard. Provision of such products were also agreed upon by their own registered doctors, the company said, adding that it offered genetic tests and services from different suppliers, including Genedecode.

“We offer a 14-day cooling period to customers and provide them with consumer protection. Our sales policy is at a top standard in the industry,” the statement read.

“We believe the gene test can help people to understand their own health conditions better. This can help protect their health so they can get proper treatment when sick.”

But the company did not respond to any of the allegations made by Yuen.

“These companies did not state the pros and cons as well as the limitations of the tests, yet they exaggerated the test impact, misleading customers,” Yuen earlier said. “They may have breached the Trade Descriptions Ordinance.”

These companies did not state the pros and cons as well as the limitations of the tests, yet they exaggerated the test impact, misleading customers

Ramon Yuen, Democratic Party

Under the law, traders can be said to be involved in unfair practices if they give false descriptions of their services or misleadingly omit information. The offence is punishable by five years’ imprisonment and a fine of HK$500,000.

A spokesman for the Customs and Excise Department said: “The department is looking into the matter. Appropriate action will be taken if any element of a suspected violation of the Trade Descriptions Ordinance is found.

“Since each case is a unique situation, it must be considered with reference to relevant facts and circumstances.”

Yuen also urged the Department of Health to step up regulation of genetic tests.

The health department said medical professionals are regulated by Hong Kong law, and the public should consult a professional before receiving any medical diagnosis or treatment, including genetic testing.

“The public should also avoid purchasing medical laboratory services, including genetic testing, on their own, as it is hard to determine the professional standard and quality of such services,” a department spokesman said.

Dr Brian Chung Hon-yin, a specialist in genetics and genomics from the University of Hong Kong, said current technology for predicting a person’s ability through gene-testing was still in its infancy.

“Even with the latest technology, the highest accuracy rate for predicting educational attainment is only 20 per cent,” Chung said, referring to a large overseas study published last year.

He explained that current tests usually looked into a type of genetic variation, but sometimes such variants did not yield significant physical changes in the body.

He added that a person’s abilities in areas such as music or studies were also affected by multiple factors, such as the education level of the parents and the family’s socio-economic status.

“These factors might be more important than the genetic factor,” Chung said.

Yuen also slammed Mok for misconduct, accusing him of acting like a spokesman for at least two companies, while not revealing the risks of such tests.

In one of the videos that Mok appeared in, he likened genetic testing to “scientific fortune-telling”.

He also suggested that the procedure was accurate as his own test results recommended he pursue a medical career.

As of 3.45pm on Monday, the videos with Mok had been taken down from YouTube, and Genedecode had removed his details from its webpage.

Yuen added he would report the case to the Medical Council, the governing body for the city’s doctors, and Chinese University.

On Monday night the university’s medical school said Mok had not endorsed Re:health but was a consultant for Genedecode. A spokesman did not respond on whether Mok had contravened any staff regulations.

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Dr Alfred Tam Yat-cheung, a well-known specialist in paediatric respiratory medicine, was also featured in promotional videos for Genedecode.

Dr Gabriel Choi Kin, a member of the Medical Council, said the doctors in the videos could have violated the code of conduct as they were not allowed to favour companies or promote products.

“But if there are any complaints, the case will need to be scrutinised. The videos will have to be examined in detail to look at what they said, the exact wording they used and if they received any money, among other things,” Choi said.

The Post reached out to the other companies among the eight and Mok but they remained uncontactable.

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