Two medical journals retract 15 Chinese studies about transplants amid fears the scientists used organs from executed prisoners
- Two journals withdrew studies they had concerns about on ethical grounds
- China has admitted using executed prisoners in research but a ban came in 2015
- All studies were before 2015 but experts believe the practice continues
Fifteen studies by researchers in China have been retracted this month due to suspicions they used organs from executed prisoners.
Two journals withdrew publications after it became ‘clear with hindsight’ that many of the deceased donors were prisoners.
It comes a month after experts raised concerns about the ethics of more than 400 scientific papers from Chinese researchers.
Hundreds of transplant trials are thought to have been conducted on hearts, livers or lungs taken from executed criminals.
Until 2015, death row inmates were routinely used as a source of organ donation, but many fear the practise continues despite a ban.
Fifteen studies by researchers in China have been retracted this month due to suspicions they used organs from executed prisoners
Seven of the studies were in the journal Transplantation and eight were in PLOS ONE — according to Retraction Watch, which monitors queries about research.
Two involved kidney transplants, and the rest involved liver transplants.
It has been claimed that prisoners from groups including Uighur Muslims, an ethnic minority in China, have been targeted.
Explaining the retraction, the editors of Transplantation said: ‘It is clear, with the benefit of hindsight, and through the Chinese Government’s subsequent clarifications of their practices, that most deceased donors were from executed people.
A report published in 2016 found a the official transplant figures from the Chinese government and the number of transplants reported by hospitals were completely different.
While the government said 10,000 transplants occur each year, hospital data shows between 60,000 to 100,000 organs are transplanted each year, according to the campaign group the International Coalition to End Transplant Abuse in China (ETAC).
Experts believe there is evidence the gap is being made up by executed prisoners of conscience – those locked up because of their political or religious beliefs.
This year, the ETAC set up a tribunal in London to look into the evidence that hospitals in China are boosting supplies of transplant organs from such prisoners, New Scientist reported.
The tribunal heard evidence that some hospitals in China offer organ transplants with very short waiting times.
They were also told of an investigation run by another campaign group, the World Organization to Investigate the Persecution of Falun Gong, in which researchers acting as doctors rang up senior transplant doctors in Chinese hospitals to try to book transplants.
In nine of the 12 hospitals contacted, doctors verbally confirmed that the organs would be sourced from Falun Gong members – a belief system similar to Buddhism that is outlawed in China.
However, the evidence so far is circumstantial, and it has not been proven that transplant organs are still being sourced from prisoners.
The Chinese government has yet to respond to the tribunal but has denied allegations previously.
The chair of the tribunal, Geoffrey Nice, a former UK judge, has said that he believes the practice is still widespread.
‘This was not transparent to reviewers and editors at the time of original acceptance for publication of these articles.’
Two other journals, the Clinical Journal of the American Society of Nephrology and Kidney International, have recently issued expressions of concern for the same reasons.
All the 15 studies were published pre 2015, the year Chinese government said the nation had stopped using prisoners’ organs.
Before this, China openly admitted to harvesting executed prisoners’ organs to donate, and a law requiring donors’ consent was only devised in 2011.
The country has been transplanting organs for decades but the practice was largely unregulated until laws and safeguards began to be introduced in 2007.
Despite a ‘ban’ in 2015, the method is not illegal, according to researchers at Macquarie University in Sydney, Australia.
Writing in the British Medical Journal (BMJ) in February, they said more than 400 scientific studies should be withdrawn because they may have been based on organs harvested from dead prisoners in China.
Almost all studies (92.5 per cent) conducted between 2000 and 2017 which used organs had not reported whether the tissues had been taken from executed prisoners.
Professor Wendy Rogers, lead author of the study, said the findings were ‘morally concerning’.
‘We were quite shocked to find that there had been so few questions asked about where the organs came from in this Chinese research,’ she told AFP.
Following the study, published in February, Ms Rogers said she was pleased some journals were taking action.
Last year, a judge found China had ‘for a substantial period’ been harvesting organs from ‘prisoners of conscience’ – those locked up because of their political or religious beliefs.
Barrister Geoffrey Nice, who chaired the China Tribunal, concluded that prisoners in China, in particular those imprisoned for their political or religious views, have been killed for their organs for years and probably still are.
Amnesty International calls China’s use of the death penalty – which is believed to be the highest in the world – ‘horrifying’.
Jacob Lavee, an Israeli heart surgeon who is a member of campaign group Doctors Against Forced Organ Harvesting, said politicians also need to act.
He said: ‘Chinese transplant physicians are committing a crime against humanity.’
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