A Chinese researcher, who claimed to have created the world's first gene-edited babies that are resistant to HIV, has been suspended from any scientific activity amid mounting criticism at home and abroad about the controversial experiment, according to media reports.
In a fertilised human egg cell, the scientist, He Jiankui, intends to make a person resistant to HIV by disabling a gene that forms a protein doorway allowing the virus to enter the body.
"The case, as media have reported, is a blatant violation of China's laws and regulations, and it breaks the bottom line of academic morality and ethics," Xu Nanping, vice-minister of science and technology, told state-run China Central Television.
"It's shocking and unacceptable," Xu was quoted by the China Daily as saying in the interview.
Xu said the ministry had ordered authorities to suspend all scientific activity of people involved with the case and mete out punishments after an ongoing investigation.
He, an associate professor at the Shenzhen-based Southern University of Science and Technology, announced on Monday that twin girls, Lulu and Nana, were born healthy earlier this month after in vitro fertilisation (IVF).
Gene-editing technology had been used to immunise them from HIV, he claimed.
The news shocked the world and aroused widespread criticism, both for its ethics, technical flaws and the necessity of such a procedure to prevent AIDS.
The Shenzhen government joined Guangdong provincial authorities in an investigative group on Tuesday.
Zeng Yixin, vice-minister of the National Health Commission, said Thursday the commission had paid close attention to the reports and sent a working group to assist in the probe.
He, while attending a summit on human-genome editing in Hong Kong on Wednesday, said he was "proud" of his work and believed he was helping people with HIV -- the twins' father is HIV positive.
He, however, declined to reveal the babies' identities, citing China's policy regarding privacy in cases involving HIV/AIDS.
On Thursday, the organising committee of the summit released a statement, saying that the experiment was "irresponsible and failed to conform with international norms".
Many scholars spoke against the research, saying it violated ethical norms and was unnecessary because couples, where the male is HIV-positive, can have virus-free children through the application of existing medical technology.
In an open letter, more than 300 Chinese scientists raised 10 questions for He and his team related to safety, effectiveness and purpose of the research, and whether he has concealed other related experiments from the public, China Daily reported.
The Chinese Academy of Engineering, a top academic body of the country, has urged strict protection of the twins' privacy, calling for the development of a detailed care plan for the babies as they grow "to guard against possible health damage resulting from the gene editing".
"We care deeply about the two babies and appeal for the research and formulation of detailed medical and ethical care plans," it said.
The academy said it hopes the babies would grow up happy and healthy, both physically and psychologically, with "the most care possible that can be provided by society".
(With inputs from agencies.)