Human embryos smuggling: DRI expands probe to more clinics, to carry out forensic test after recording statement

Khushboo Narayan, Tabassum Barnagarwala
Dr Goral Gandhi has denied all allegations, moved HC

The Directorate of Revenue Intelligence (DRI) has expanded its probe into the alleged smuggling of human embryos to include a few other clinics that provide in-vitro fertilization (IVF) facilities in the city, sources told The Indian Express on Tuesday.

"The DRI is also probing a few other clinics in the city that may have used illegally imported human embryos for IVF," the source said.

On March 15, Partheban Durai, a passenger, was arrested at Mumbai international airport on his arrival from Kaula Lampur with a nitrogen canister containing a single human embryo. Officials said Durai has admitted to bringing embryos at least eight to nine times in the past to Mumbai. In the latest case, he was allegedly scheduled to deliver the embryo at Indo Nippon Clinic, Bandra, run by embryologist Goral Gandhi. The DRI is yet to conduct forensic analysis of the seized embryo.

Read | Human embryo smuggling: Mock delivery leads DRI to Mumbai clinic

"The Bombay High Court has directed Goral Gandhi to record her statement with the agency on March 22. The DRI will initiate the forensic test of the embryo only after it records Gandhi's statement," said another source. A forensic analysis of the embryo is required to establish its nationality and DNA to identify parents.

Import of embryo, ovum or sperm is prohibited in India except for research purposes since 2015.

An Indian Council of Medical Research (ICMR) guideline to permit regulated import is under consideration by the Union government.

Officials with the state Directorate of Health Services are mulling whether action against the centre can be taken. National research body ICMR is also following the case closely. "We would be doing anything that could help facilitate the probe," said Dr Chander Shekhar, additional director currently holding charge of director general in ICMR.

IVF experts said this is the first time such a case of smuggling has come to light. Durai was smuggling embryos from Heart to ART IVF centre in Malaysia. It was registered two years ago in Selangor to exclusively provide surrogacy services. The clinic provides egg donors, surrogate mothers, sperm donors, along with IVF services. The clinic did not respond to calls or email from The Indian Express.

Embryos can be preserved in nitrogen vapour or liquid nitrogen at temperature below -190 degree Celsius.

The preservation starts at second day of fertilisation and can be maintained for years. Before it is placed in uterus, thawing is conducted to chemically process and warm the embryo.

While IVF experts expressed shock over the illegal import, several said a law is required to regulate import in certain cases. "Several Indian couples freeze their egg or embryos abroad. Once they move to India, they wish to continue IVF and bring it back," said Dr Jaideep Malhotra, president of Indian Society for Assisted Reproduction that invited Gandhi, also scientific director at Indo Nippon, to deliver a lecture on egg freezing on March 3.

According to IVF expert Narendra Malhotra, India needs to urgently frame laws on import and export of gametes and embryos.

"It is one's own property and own tissues. They should have free choice to take it wherever they want for IVF," he said.

He, however, added that several infertile couples request for a particular nationality of eggs and sperms to get "exotic looks". "In that case, since it is illegal, we counsel the couple. If a clinic bends to such demands I do not know," Malhotra said.

DRI officials suspect the embryos were being smuggled to Mumbai to carry illegal surrogacy for foreign nationals.

"It is important to first conduct all tests on embryo to understand possible reasons behind importing it," said Dr Smita Mahale, director of National Institute of Research in Reproductive Health (NIRRH).

In 2017, a Thai man was arrested for illegally transporting sperms, eggs and embryos from Bangkok to Vientiane in Laos.

Malay national Durai was granted spot bail under Section 135 of the Customs Act on March 17.

When contacted, Dr Gandhi said, "Since the matter is sub-judice, I do not wish to comment on it at this point." She is slated to record statement with DRI on Friday.