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Factory to clone cows, primates … and humans?

The Chinese scientist behind the world’s biggest cloning factory has technology advanced enough to replicate humans and is only holding off for fear of the public reaction, it has been revealed.

Boyalife Group and its partners are building the giant plant in the north China port of Tianjin, where it is due to go into production within the next seven months and aims for an output of a million cloned cows a year by 2020.

But cattle are only the beginning of chief executive Xu Xiaochun’s ambitions.

In the pipeline are thoroughbred racehorses, as well as dogs.

Boyalife is already working with South Korean partner Sooam and the Chinese Academy of Sciences to improve primate cloning capacity to create better animals for research.

It is a short biological step from monkeys to humans — potentially raising a host of moral and ethical controversies.

“The technology is already there,” Xu said.

The firm does not currently engage in human cloning activities, he said, adding that it has to be “self-restrained” because of possible adverse reaction.

But social values can change, he pointed out, citing changing views of homosexuality and suggesting that in time humans could have more choices about their own reproduction.

Xu, 44, went to university in Canada and the US, and has previously worked for US pharmaceutical giant Pfizer.

Presenting cloning as a safeguard of biodiversity, the Tianjin facility will house a gene bank capable of holding up to approximately five million cell samples frozen in liquid nitrogen — a catalogue of the world’s endangered species for future regeneration.

Sooam is already working on a project to bring the woolly mammoth back from extinction by cloning cells preserved in the Siberian permafrost.

Sooam also recreates dead pet dogs, reportedly for US$100,000 a time.

Sooam founder Hwang Woo-Suk became embroiled in controversy a decade ago after his claims to be the first to clone a human embryo were discredited.

Hwang, who created Snuppy, the world’s first cloned dog, in 2005, lost his university position, had two major papers retracted, and was accused of crimes ranging from violation of bioethics laws to embezzling research funds.

Earlier this year he was quoted in South Korea’s Dong-A Ilbo newspaper saying that his firm was planning a joint venture in China “because of South Korea’s bioethics law that prohibits the use of human eggs.”

“We have decided to locate the facilities in China in case we enter the phase of applying the technology to human bodies,” he was quoted as saying.

For now, Xu seeks to become the world’s first purveyor of “cloned” beef, breeding genetically identical cattle that he promises will taste like Kobe and allow butchers to “slaughter less and produce more.”

There is controversy over whether cloned beef is safe — research by the US Food and Drug Adminstration says it is, but the European parliament has backed a ban on cloned animals and products in the food chain.

Han Lanzhi, a GMO safety specialist at the Chinese Academy of Agricultural Sciences, said Boyalife’s claims about the safety, scope and timeline of their operations were alarming.

“There must be strong regulation because as a company pursuing its own interests, they could very easily do other things in the future,” she said.

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