Chinese Scientist Who Genetically Modified Babies Is Under House Arrest

The Chinese scientist who shocked the world by announcing he created the first genetically-edited babies, He Jiankui, and who had been missing since his accomplishment spawned widespread outrage around the globe, has been "kept" in a small university guest house, apparently under lock and key while guarded by "a dozen unidentified men", according to the New York Times.

He was spotted for the last time in public in late November at a conference in Hong Kong, where he defended his actions. Over the past couple of weeks, rumors and speculation spread whether or not he was under house arrest. There has been no word from the Chinese government or his university, which placed him under investigation, about his whereabouts (or future).

For now, he appears to live in a fourth floor apartment in a university guesthouse on the campus of the Southern University of Science and Technology.

He achieved instant global fame (and notoriety) in November, when he claimed that he used genetically edited embryos implanted in a woman who gave birth to twin girls. At the conference, he presented data backing up his claims. However, his work was quickly denounced – not only in China, but also across the world – as a step too far. Chinese scientists said that the project focused too much on scientific achievement and not enough on ethical standards.

This past Wednesday, the doctor was seen on the balcony of his guest house, pacing back-and-forth. He could also be seen at one point talking to a woman who appeared to be his wife. It was observed that balconies attached to his apartment were fenced off by metal wiring. That same evening, four plainclothes guards stood outside of his apartment and when prompted, one said “How did you know that Professor He is here?”

It wasn’t clear whether the guards were from the University, the government, the police or some type of other organization. Police in Shenzhen did not respond to the New York Times' request for comment.

A colleague who helped co-found He's gene-testing company, Liu Chaoyu, confirmed his identity after seeing him on video.  According to another co-founder, Chen Peng, Dr. He is allowed to make phone calls and send emails. Chen stated: "He is safe. But I don’t know his exact whereabouts or what state he is in."

Earlier, a local newspaper reported that He had been placed under house arrest, which prompted much of the speculation as to his whereabouts. However, the University has claimed that this was not the case, stating: "Right now nobody’s information is accurate, only the official channels are."

The media in China has been surprisingly quiet about Dr. He's situation after he published his findings a months ago, suggesting a censorship order had come from the very top. He was spotted watching television on Thursday and guards were observed on the floor of his apartment on Friday. There were also guards placed in the hallway leading to his former offices at the school's biology department. In late December, the University issued a notice to his staff telling employees they were prohibited from taking interviews about anything regarding the genetically edited babies.

The notice, dated November 29, stated: “Do not discuss the contents or progress of the investigation, do not comment on the matter.” 

Dr. He's colleagues didn’t seem to know that he was working on genetically edited babies. Dr. He was reported to have said "There will be big news," while smiling, leading up to the conference where he made his announcement. His business partners have had to deal with the aftershock of his decisions.

Co-founder Liu stated: "He was extremely irresponsible to the employees, partners and investors. He did not discuss anything with us before he made his announcement and we had to deal with all of it unexpectedly."