Crime: Ethical Concerns About a Forensic DNA Database

YHRD is the largest database of male breeds. What is unusual about her case is the close connection with forensic medicine and the investigation of the crime. YHRD is organized by forensic geneticists Sasha Willowt and Lutz Royer from the Charité Berlin. As is usual with other databases, YHRD requires an ethical review to collect data and obtain the consent of the test subjects. However, these requirements have not been verified. Researchers who wish to upload data to the database are encouraged to publish their scientific work first – it is up to the scientific journal to ensure compliance with ethical guidelines. But in about ten percent of the cases, Royer says, the scientists uploaded the data without first publishing an article about their work.

In March 2019, Moreau began investigating studies on minorities in China. In doing so shocked Based on a public study conducted in 2017, which collects and categorizes data from approximately 38,000 Y chromosome profiles of Chinese men collected at YHRD. In addition to Willuweit and Roewer, the study authors also included researchers from Chinese security authorities and the police. “I realized YHRD was a problem,” Morrow says. Although the study stated that the profiles were collected with informed consent, it is difficult, Moro points out, to understand how Uyghurs and other persecuted minorities could voluntarily give such consent.

As a result, Morrow identified dozens of articles in leading international forensic journals, co-authored by members of the Chinese police force, and aimed at creating DNA profiles of Tibetans, Uyghurs and other minority groups. Most of these articles were not relevant to International Human Rights Day. Moreau contacted Springer Nature, which publishes some journals, and The company started an investigation* In December 2019 Moreau spread his concerns at opinion articleWhich YHRD does not mention. Then, in January 2020, he also asked Charité́ to investigate the matter. Charité declined: Although the database is hosted by her, the clinic is owned or operated by the clinic, the company confirmed when asked by the “Nature” news team.

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Morrow also discussed his concerns directly with Royer and Willuit. Roewer agrees with Moreau: Researchers should not use DNA taken without informed consent. However, it is not at all the job of the YHRD to verify or investigate this matter: “We are not an ethical supervisory authority.” Royer adds that neither ethical approval nor a review of data collection was necessary for the public study from 2017, as the data included were collected in the context of other studies.

Last year, Roewer removed from database profiles the authors of an article on DNA studies of the Uighur, Kazakh and Hui minorities in China had uploaded. The reason is that Springer Nature Examination and withdrawal of the basic studyThe authors stated that the study was conducted without the approval of the relevant ethics committee. Royer says he will delete the extra records as more articles are pulled.

“We are not a moral supervisory authority.”
(Lutz Royer, Forensischer Genetiker)

By mid-2021, Springer Nature had added editorial comments to 28 expert articles — including a study from 2017 — that identified concerns about the ethical and informed consent process. The publisher also pulled a second post. “We expect further editorial action in at least some of these cases,” a spokesperson for the publisher commented. Moreau says he also identified nine other potentially problematic studies that also include co-authors from the Chinese police force. Data from these studies can also be found in YHRD – however, these cases have not yet been reported by editors of relevant journals.

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