May 15

Harvard research in China: Open Letter to Pres. Summers

Harvard research in China: Open Letter to Pres. Summers

Sat, 12 Apr 2003

On May 15, 2002, The Boston Globe reported that Lawrence Summers, the President of Harvard University, “expressed deep regret that a dozen Harvard-run genetic studies in China failed to give test subjects adequate information about potential pitfalls.” See:

Dr. Summers was referring to government funded experiments that have elicited much criticism because the investigators disregarded the human rights of vulnerable Chinese people. Poor Chinese farmers were put at risk when their blood was drawn with unsterilized needles and because the Chinese regime discriminates against people with a genetic disposition to illness.

Unbeknown to these (mostly illiterate) farmers, the experiments put their health and their livelihood at risk. These farmers were not informed about these inherent risks, thus, they did not give valid informed consent. It would appear that the researchers violated national and international ethical research standards. Some critics have called the experiments “reckless endangerment of human lives.”

Criticism of these experiments was first reported in the U.S. on August 1, 2000, by Alice Dembner of The Boston Globe, who reported that a federal investigation was underway. See:

In December 2000, The Washington Post published an investigative report noting how financial conflicts of interest had undermined the safety of these impoverished Chinese farmers. Their blood was obtained by false promises of providing them healthcare benefits in return. Instead, their blood was used in genetic research that enriched others. See:

An on-going investigation by the federal Office of Human Research Protection found the NIH-sponsored research in serious violation of federal regulations.

See also: and

On March 16, 2003, China’s premier medical reporter, Xiong Lei, sent a letter to Harvard’s President (below) reminding him of Harvard’s responsibility toward the exploited Chinese farmers. She has, so far, received no reply.

—– Original Message —–
From: leixiong
To: Lawrence summers
Sent: Sunday, March 16, 2003 10:44 PM
Subject: Re: Re: Harvard newspaper asks Pres. Summers- restitution to Anhui farmers?

Dear Mr. Lawrence Summers,

I’m a Chinese journalist who has been following the problematic China projects sponsored by the Program for Population Ge! netics involving several Harvard institutions. It has been almost a year since you admitted that these projects “were wrong” and “badly wrong” at Beijing University.

First of all, I should say it is admirable for a public figure and leader of a renowned higher learning institution to have the courage to face truth and admit the mistake committed by some of its faculty. I think this is a positive approach to a serious issue in the field of bioethics which is closely related to human rights.

Second, I wish to tell you that I’ve been waiting in the past year to see what concrete measures you and Harvard would take to correct the wrongs. But so far I haven’t seen any.

I should harbor no doubt that you were honest and sincere when you said those projects were “badly wrong” to the students of Beijing University. But what should we expect after it was realized that wrongs were done?

The problematic Harvard project! s had involved thousands of Chinese farmers who were kept in the dark about all the information concerning the projects, including the purpose, the funding, the beneficiaries, possible risks they might go through and everything. They were abused because they did not know and were not told of their rights. In other words, their human rights were violated by the Harvard sponsored projects and both Harvard and the principal investigators of the projects from Harvard should be held liable for the violations. One measure to compensate the violation is that an official apology and explanation of the whole matter from Harvard and the researchers involved should be sent to every single Chinese participant. An honorable institution like Harvard should not allow the serious violations of human rights to go off easily.

Then, restitution to participating Chinese farmers should be a must from Harvard and other institutions that had sponsored or funded the “badly wrong” p! rojects.

Lastly, I suggest Harvard sponsor a workshop on bioethics in human genome research which should invite Chinese farmers from some of the sites to have discussions face to face with investigators, research scholars, bioethic experts, media people and government officials on issues regarding bioethical principles and decent research. Too many workshops and conferences have excluded farmer participants as their say does not matter, although their blood and DNA samples have been greedily searched and hunted for. Harvard under your leadership should set a good example to show due respect for them.

Those are my proposals for you to show your sincerity in correcting the wrongs Harvard has committed in its China projects.

Look forward to hearing from you.

Best regards,
Xiong Lei
China Features
57 Xuanwumen Xijie
Beijing 100803
Tel: (86-10) 6307-4439
Fax: (86-10) 6307-4358

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