China is the “Wild West” of biomedical research at the moment. Not bound by tight regulations, while fuelled by an influx of new money, Chinese scientists have been able to make leaps and bounds in recent years. This, of course, can come at a very high price.
If you receive an organ transplant in China, there’s a chance it was harvested from an executed prisoner. Many of China’s executed prisoners are not murderers and violent criminals, but “prisoners of conscience,” such as Falun Gong practitioners and political prisoners imprisoned for their beliefs.
The Chinese government has consistently denied harvesting organs from prisoners, dismissing the claims as “sensational lies” and ''vicious slander". However, a new report in BMJ Open argues that the grim practice could still be alive and kicking today. As a result, they are calling for the retraction of over 400 scientific research papers on transplantation because the data was obtained unethically. They also call for journals and researchers to take a tougher stance on implementing ethical guidelines by banning the publication of research that used organs from a dubious source.
The team of Australian researchers from Macquarie University found 445 studies carried out by China researchers, published in English language journals, in which there were 85,477 organ transplantations. Only 63 papers, just 14 percent, included any information about the source of the organs, while 99 percent did not disclose that the donors had given consent for transplantation.
Up to 192 of the papers, 43 percent, took place when "the only organs available for transplant" were from executed prisoners.
While there is no new direct evidence of organ harvesting in the study, China’s history of harvesting organs from prisoners has been well-established and casts strong doubt on its promises to reform. In 2006, the Kilgour–Matas report investigated whether Chinese researchers were secretly harvesting the organs of Falun Gong practitioners, a persecuted minority who follow a spiritual practice that combines meditation, qigong exercises, and a moral philosophy based on compassion.
“Based on what we now know, we have come to the regrettable conclusion that the allegations are true,” that report concluded. “We believe that there has been and continues today to be large scale organ seizures from unwilling Falun Gong practitioners.”
In numerous accounts from the report, former political prisoners speak about suspicious behavior in labor camps that suggests organ harvesting was taking place.
“Some doctors were brought in to give us medical examinations. When we heard about this, we were very puzzled,” one Falun Gong practitioner explained. “The staff there beat and abused us, using every possible means to torment us. How come they wanted to have us go through a medical examination?”
“Now looking back, they did not care about us at all, but were trying to find suitable organs from us for transplant.”
The call for retraction is unprecedented as this is the first study that has looked at whether journals comply with the international ethics standard on organ transplant donor consent, which clearly many don't.
“There’s no real pressure from research leaders on China to be more transparent,” lead author Wendy Rogers told the Guardian. “Everyone seems to say, ‘It’s not our job’. The world’s silence on this barbaric issue must stop.”