Chinese researcher to plead guilty in Harvard cancer-cell case

Zheng Zaosong was accused of stealing 21 vials of cancer cells from a Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Centre lab in Boston. PHOTO: AFP

MASSACHUSETTS (BLOOMBERG) - A Harvard-sponsored Chinese researcher accused by US officials of trying to smuggle 21 vials of cancer cells taken from a Boston hospital has agreed to plead guilty to a lesser charge and will be permitted to return to China, federal prosecutors said.

Smuggling charges will be dropped against Zheng Zaosong in exchange for his plea to one count of making false statements to US Customs and Border Patrol agents, who found the vials stashed in a sock in his luggage before a flight to Beijing, according to a court filing on Tuesday (Dec 1) in Boston. The government will recommend a judge order his immediate removal from the United States.

Zheng is scheduled to plead guilty on Thursday at a hearing via video conference. His attorney David Duncan declined to comment.

Under questioning by customs agents in December 2019, Zheng initially denied knowing about the vials but later admitted he stole them from the Harvard-affiliated Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Centre lab where he worked, according to federal investigators. Harvard withdrew its sponsorship of Zheng following his arrest.

The Zheng case is one of several involving Chinese scientists initially accused of spying or theft in the US but were later allowed to plead to lesser charges.

In November, the Justice Department backed off conspiracy charges in a case against a Chinese computer science professor accused of stealing trade secrets for Huawei Technologies. The charges were dropped in exchange for Bo Mao's plea to a single count of making false statements.

The US made a similar deal with a Chinese professor working at Ohio State University who admitted making false statement in grant applications to the the National Institute of Health that concealed his affiliation to a university in China.

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