China harvests organs from persecuted minorities, human rights group claims

Heinous, if proved accurate.

China harvests organs from persecuted minorities, human rights group claims

Members of Falun Gong religion demonstrate in Toronto's Nathan Phillips Square. They demand Canada to pressure China to stop religious persecution.

Photo credit: Roberto Machado Noa / LightRocket via Getty Images
  • The NGO China Tribunal accused China of killing persecuted minorities and harvesting thousands of organs from them.
  • They recently presented their findings to the U.N. Human Rights Council.
  • China has denied the large-scale harvesting of organs.

China has been accused of murdering and harvesting the organs of ethnic and other persecuted groups in the country.

Members of the NGO China Tribunal spoke before the United Nations Human Rights Council on Tuesday, September 24, claiming that the Chinese government was responsible for purloining thousands of essential organs — hearts, kidneys, and lungs — from members of the Falun Gong religious sect and Uighur Muslims.

China Tribunal accusations to UN Human Rights Council

A senior lawyer of the group, Hamid Sabi, called on the U.N. human rights body to investigate their evidence that implicates China in the murdering of Falun Gong spiritual group members for the harvesting of their organs for transplant.

Before the council, Sabi said:

"For years throughout China on a significant scale [the harvesting of organs]. . . and it continues today. . . Victim for victim and death for death, cutting out the hearts and other organs from living, blameless, harmless, peaceable people constitutes one of the worst mass atrocities of this century."

Sabi also mentioned that detainees from the ethnic Uighur minority were also targeted. "Here is a duty on those who have the power to institute investigations for, and proceedings at, international courts or at the U.N. to test whether Genocide has been committed," China Tribunal's final report reads.

Beijing has denied the accusations that it is rounding up persecuted groups and forcibly taking their organs. It also stated that it stopped using organs from executed prisoners back in 2015. However, China Tribunal's higher-ups claim that there was a substantial number of prisoners killed by the Chinese government:

"The Tribunal's members are certain — unanimously, and sure beyond reasonable doubt — that in China forced organ harvesting from prisoners of conscience has been practiced for a substantial period of time involving a very substantial number of victims."

The tribunal and report was led by Sir Geoffrey Nice, a British lawyer that was the lead lead prosecutor in the trial of former Yugoslavian president, Slobodan Milosevic."

Currently, the group's members are calling for further investigations and proceedings.

Persecuted ethnic groups and minorities

The Falun Gong is a spiritual meditation group that was banned in China over 20 years ago after 10,000 of their members led a silent protest in a leadership compound in Beijing. Since then, thousands of members have been imprisoned.

Sir Geoffrey Nice, the tribunal's chairman, spoke at a separate U.N. event stating that those involved in the transplant surgery foreign market could no longer discredit this "inconvenient evidence."

Transplant recipients usually include Chinese nationals and overseas patients who come to China so that they can receive an organ with a reduced waiting time, although at a much higher cost.

The tribunal concluded their findings by saying that:

"Governments and any who interact in any substantial way with the PRC [...] should now recognize that they are, to the extent revealed above, interacting with a criminal state."

China has been successfully squashing any international investigations into their systematic surveillance and rounding up of Uighurs into re-education camps. Diplomats, and even journalists, have allegedly been reluctant to go public after witnessing the problems firsthand.

China contends that its detention camps are there to fight Islamist extremism. Beijing calls these places boarding schools and explains that all of the detainees are voluntarily there.

If what the China Tribunal has found is, indeed, true, then this is could be one of the worst atrocities imaginable being committed by a nation state in this day and age.

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Meet Dr. Jennifer Doudna: she's leading the biotech revolution

She helped create CRISPR, a gene-editing technology that is changing the way we treat genetic diseases and even how we produce food.

Courtesy of Jennifer Doudna
Technology & Innovation

This article was originally published on our sister site, Freethink.

Last year, Jennifer Doudna and Emmanuelle Charpentier became the first all-woman team to win the Nobel Prize in Chemistry for their work developing CRISPR-Cas9, the gene-editing technology. The technology was invented in 2012 — and nine years later, it's truly revolutionizing how we treat genetic diseases and even how we produce food.

CRISPR allows scientists to alter DNA by using proteins that are naturally found in bacteria. They use these proteins, called Cas9, to naturally fend off viruses, destroying the virus' DNA and cutting it out of their genes. CRISPR allows scientists to co-opt this function, redirecting the proteins toward disease-causing mutations in our DNA.

So far, gene-editing technology is showing promise in treating sickle cell disease and genetic blindness — and it could eventually be used to treat all sorts of genetic diseases, from cancer to Huntington's Disease.

The biotech revolution is just getting started — and CRISPR is leading the charge. We talked with Doudna about what we can expect from genetic engineering in the future.

This interview has been lightly edited and condensed for clarity.

Freethink: You've said that your journey to becoming a scientist had humble beginnings — in your teenage bedroom when you discovered The Double Helix by Jim Watson. Back then, there weren't a lot of women scientists — what was your breakthrough moment in realizing you could pursue this as a career?

Dr. Jennifer Doudna: There is a moment that I often think back to from high school in Hilo, Hawaii, when I first heard the word "biochemistry." A researcher from the UH Cancer Center on Oahu came and gave a talk on her work studying cancer cells.

I didn't understand much of her talk, but it still made a huge impact on me. You didn't see professional women scientists in popular culture at the time, and it really opened my eyes to new possibilities. She was very impressive.

I remember thinking right then that I wanted to do what she does, and that's what set me off on the journey that became my career in science.

CRISPR 101: Curing Sickle Cell, Growing Organs, Mosquito Makeovers | Jennifer Doudna | Big Think www.youtube.com

Freethink: The term "CRISPR" is everywhere in the media these days but it's a really complicated tool to describe. What is the one thing that you wish people understood about CRISPR that they usually get wrong?

Dr. Jennifer Doudna: People should know that CRISPR technology has revolutionized scientific research and will make a positive difference to their lives.

Researchers are gaining incredible new understanding of the nature of disease, evolution, and are developing CRISPR-based strategies to tackle our greatest health, food, and sustainability challenges.

Freethink: You previously wrote in Wired that this year, 2021, is going to be a big year for CRISPR. What exciting new developments should we be on the lookout for?

Dr. Jennifer Doudna: Before the COVID-19 pandemic, there were multiple teams around the world, including my lab and colleagues at the Innovative Genomics Institute, working on developing CRISPR-based diagnostics.

"Traits that we could select for using traditional breeding methods, that might take decades, we can now engineer precisely in a much shorter time."
DR. JENNIFER DOUDNA

When the pandemic hit, we pivoted our work to focus these tools on SARS-CoV-2. The benefit of these new diagnostics is that they're fast, cheap, can be done anywhere without the need for a lab, and they can be quickly modified to detect different pathogens. I'm excited about the future of diagnostics, and not just for pandemics.

We'll also be seeing more CRISPR applications in agriculture to help combat hunger, reduce the need for toxic pesticides and fertilizers, fight plant diseases and help crops adapt to a changing climate.

Traits that we could select for using traditional breeding methods, that might take decades, we can now engineer precisely in a much shorter time.

Freethink: Curing genetic diseases isn't a pipedream anymore, but there are still some hurdles to cross before we're able to say for certain that we can do this. What are those hurdles and how close do you think we are to crossing them?

Dr. Jennifer Doudna: There are people today, like Victoria Gray, who have been successfully treated for sickle cell disease. This is just the tip of the iceberg.

There are absolutely still many hurdles. We don't currently have ways to deliver genome-editing enzymes to all types of tissues, but delivery is a hot area of research for this very reason.

We also need to continue improving on the first wave of CRISPR therapies, as well as making them more affordable and accessible.

Freethink: Another big challenge is making this technology widely available to everyone and not just the really wealthy. You've previously said that this challenge starts with the scientists.

Dr. Jennifer Doudna: A sickle cell disease cure that is 100 percent effective but can't be accessed by most of the people in need is not really a full cure.

This is one of the insights that led me to found the Innovative Genomics Institute back in 2014. It's not enough to develop a therapy, prove that it works, and move on. You have to develop a therapy that actually meets the real-world need.

Too often, scientists don't fully incorporate issues of equity and accessibility into their research, and the incentives of the pharmaceutical industry tend to run in the opposite direction. If the world needs affordable therapy, you have to work toward that goal from the beginning.

Freethink: You've expressed some concern about the ethics of using CRISPR. Do you think there is a meaningful difference between enhancing human abilities — for example, using gene therapy to become stronger or more intelligent — versus correcting deficiencies, like Type 1 diabetes or Huntington's?

Dr. Jennifer Doudna: There is a meaningful distinction between enhancement and treatment, but that doesn't mean that the line is always clear. It isn't.

There's always a gray area when it comes to complex ethical issues like this, and our thinking on this is undoubtedly going to evolve over time.

What we need is to find an appropriate balance between preventing misuse and promoting beneficial innovation.

Freethink: What if it turns out that being physically stronger helps you live a longer life — if that's the case, are there some ways of improving health that we should simply rule out?

Dr. Jennifer Doudna: The concept of improving the "healthspan" of individuals is an area of considerable interest. Eliminating neurodegenerative disease will not only massively reduce suffering around the world, but it will also meaningfully increase the healthy years for millions of individuals.

"There is a meaningful distinction between enhancement and treatment, but that doesn't mean that the line is always clear. It isn't."
DR. JENNIFER DOUDNA

There will also be knock-on effects, such as increased economic output, but also increased impact on the planet.

When you think about increasing lifespans just so certain people can live longer, then not only do those knock-on effects become more central, you also have to ask who is benefiting and who isn't? Is it possible to develop this technology so the benefits are shared equitably? Is it environmentally sustainable to go down this road?

Freethink: Where do you see it going from here?

Dr. Jennifer Doudna: The bio revolution will allow us to create breakthroughs in treating not just a few but whole classes of previously unaddressed genetic diseases.

We're also likely to see genome editing play a role not just in climate adaptation, but in climate change solutions as well. There will be challenges along the way both expected and unexpected, but also great leaps in progress and benefits that will move society forward. It's an exciting time to be a scientist.

Freethink: If you had to guess, what is the first disease you think we are most likely to cure, in the real world, with CRISPR?

Dr. Jennifer Doudna: Because of the progress that has already been made, sickle cell disease and beta-thalassemia are likely to be the first diseases with a CRISPR cure, but we're closely following the developments of other CRISPR clinical trials for types of cancer, a form of congenital blindness, chronic infection, and some rare genetic disorders.

The pace of clinical trials is picking up, and the list will be longer next year.

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