Hong Kong revokes visa of disgraced scientist who created first gene-edited babies

Hong Kong has revoked the visa of a Chinese scientist who sparked a global debate after saying he was involved in creating the world’s first gene-edited babies.

He Jiankui triggered a debate on what was called the most controversial acts in modern scientific history after claiming he edited the genes of three babies.

He was convicted by a mainland Chinese court in 2019 and sentenced to three years in prison with a fine of 3 million yuan ($445,000) after he was found guilty of illegal medical practices.

Hong Kong immigration department said it was declaring the visa invalid after finding that “someone” made a “false statement”, it said without mentioning his name.

“After the immigration department reviewed the application, it suspected that someone had made false statements to get the visa approval,” the statement said. “The director of immigration has declared that the visa is invalid in accordance with the law.”

He was arrested and jailed after announcing he had genetically engineered human babies (AFP via Getty Images)
He was arrested and jailed after announcing he had genetically engineered human babies (AFP via Getty Images)

It said the statement was in response to reports about a visa applicant who “had been imprisoned for illegal medical practice”.

It came hours after He said on Tuesday that he is considering working in Hong Kong after he was granted a work permit in early February under Hong Kong’s new Top Talent Pass Scheme, which is to attract highly-skilled workers to Hong Kong.

In a press briefing in Beijing, He said he would like to explore opportunities in Hong Kong on gene therapies for rare diseases.

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

“My scientific research will comply with the ethics codes and international consensus on scientific research,” he added.

He announced the birth of gene-edited twin girls, nicknamed Lulu and Nana, before they were born in a YouTube video on his channel four years ago. He said the babies were “as healthy as any other babies” and were home with their parents.

Later, at the Second International Summit on Human Genome Editing conference in Hong Kong, He defended his work and announced the birth of a third baby, Amy.

He claimed that he used the tool Crisper to disable a gene that allows HIV to enter cells to make the babies resistant to Aids.

The gene-editing tool Crisper-Cas9, which can insert or deactivate certain genes have been tested elsewhere in adults to treat diseases but several in the scientific community have criticised He’s work.

It is argued that it is medically unnecessary and unethical partly because any genetic changes could be passed down to future generations.

The immigration department said law enforcement will conduct a criminal investigation in the case.

According to the department, the application under the Top Talent programme does not require the applicant to reveal past criminal record.

But authorities announced they would change the application process starting from Wednesday and will make it mandatory for applicants to declare any criminal convictions.