Bejing: Collagen, harvested from the corpses of Chinese convicts is being sold for use in beauty products in Europe and the US, according to a report in the UK’s Guardian newspaper.
An undercover reporter for the newspaper claims that agents for the company, which cannot be named for legal reasons, is telling potential customers that it is developing collagen for lip and wrinkle treatments from skin taken from prisoners after they have been shot.
The agents say some of the company’s products have been exported to the UK, and that the use of skin from condemned convicts is “traditional” and nothing to “make such a big fuss about”.
Although there are no European regulations to control non-surgical treatments doctors have already warned about the potential risk of infection from collagen harvested from human bodies.
The newspaper says it is unclear whether the products are already available or whether they are still in research. At the same time it said that the company has exported collagen products to the UK in the past and has told customers it is trying to develop other fillers using tissue from aborted foetuses.
When formally approached by the Guardian, the agent denied the company was using skin harvested from executed prisoners. However, he had already admitted it was doing precisely this during a number of conversations with a researcher posing as a Hong Kong businessman.
The agent told the researcher: “A lot of the research is still carried out in the traditional manner using skin from the executed prisoner and aborted foetus.” This material, he said, was being bought from “bio tech” companies based in the northern province of Heilongjiang, and was being developed elsewhere in China.
He suggested that the use of skin and other tissues harvested from executed prisoners was not uncommon. “In China it is considered very normal and I was very shocked that western countries can make such a big fuss about this,” he said. Speaking from his office in northern China, he added: “The government has put some pressure on all the medical facilities to keep this type of work in low profile.”
The agent said his company exported to the west via Hong Kong.”We are still in the early days of selling these products, and clients from abroad are quite sur prised that China can manufacture the same human collagen for less than 5% of what it costs in the west.” Skin from prisoners used to be even less expensive, he said. “Nowadays there is a certain fee that has to be paid to the court.”
Meanwhile, cosmetic treatments, including those with with aesthetic fillers, are growing rapidly in popularity, with around 150,000 injections or implants administered each year in the UK. Lip enhancement treatments are one of the most popular, costing an average of pounds 170.
Some fillers are made from cattle or pig tissue, and others from humans. The DoH believes that there may be a risk of transmission of blood-borne viruses and even vCJD from collagen containing human tissue. Although there is as yet no evidence that this has happened, the inquiry found that some collagen injections had triggered inflammatory reactions causing permanent discomfort, scarring and disfigurement. In their report, the inquiry team said that if there was a risk, “action should be taken to protect patient safety through regulation”.
While new regulations are to be drawn up, the department is currently powerless to regulate most human-tissue fillers intended for injection or implant, as they occupy a legal grey area. Most products are not governed by regulations controlling medical products, as they are not classified as medicines. They also escape cosmetics regulations, which only apply to substances used on the surface of the skin and not those injected beneath it. The Healthcare Commission is planning new regulations for cosmetic surgery clinics next year, but these will not control the substances used by plastic surgeons.
A number of plastic surgeons have told the Guardian that they have been hearing rumours about the use of tissue harvested from executed prisoners for several years.
Peter Butler, a consultant plastic surgeon and government adviser, said there had been rumours that Chinese surgeons had performed hand transplants using hands from executed prisoners. One transplant centre was believed to be adjacent to an execution ground. “I can see the utility of it, as they have access and no ethical objection,” he said. “The main concern would be infective risk.”
Andrew Lee of the University of Pitts burgh School of Medicine, who has visited China to examine transplant techniques, said he had heard similar rumours.
Manufacturers of aesthetic fillers said they had seen Chinese collagen products on sale at trade fairs, but had not seen any labelled Chinese-made in the UK. Dan Cohen, whose US-based company, Inamed, produces collagen products, said: “We have come across Chinese products in the market place. But most products from China are being sold ‘off-label’ or are being imported illegally.”
In China, authorities deny that prisoners’ body parts are harvested without their consent. However, there is some evidence to suggest it may be happening.
In June 2001, Wang Guoqi, a Chinese former military physician, told US congressmen he had worked at execution grounds helping surgeons to harvest the organs of more than 100 executed prisoners, without prior consent. The surgeons used converted vans parked near the execution grounds to begin dissecting the bodies, he told the house international relations committee’s human rights panel.
Skin was said to be highly valued for the treatment of burn victims, and Dr Wang said that in 1995 he skinned a shot convict’s body while the man’s heart was still beating. Dr Wang, who was seeking asylum in the US, also alleged that corneas and other body tissue were removed for transplant, and said his hospital, the Tianjin paramilitary police general brigade hospital, sold body parts for profit.
Human rights activists in China have repeatedly claimed that organs have been harvested from the corpses of executed prisoners and sold to surgeons offering transplants to fee-paying foreigners.
Dr Wang’s allegations infuriated the Chinese authorities, and in a rare move officials publicly denounced him as a liar. The government said organs were transplanted from executed prisoners only if they and their family gave consent.
Although the exact number of people facing the death penalty in China is an official secret, Amnesty International believes around 3,400 were executed last year, with a further 6,000 on death row.