China's top health authority will issue within the next month a national regulation requiring transplant hospitals to use a computer-based organ allocation system, senior health officials revealed on Friday.
Under the new directive on human organ procurement and allocation, those who don't distribute donations via the system, called the China Organ Transplant Response System, will be punished, or even have their licenses revoked, warned Huang Jiefu, director of the China Organ Donation Committee and former vice-minister of health.
Only organs donated by the general public after death fall under the new regulation.
To date, nearly half of the transplanted organs came from death-row inmates this year, a decrease from 95 per cent in previous years.
The coming regulation is the latest in China's effort to stop relying on executed prisoners as major sources or organs for transplants.
So far, among China's 165 authorised organ transplant centers, only Wuhan University's Zhongnan Hospital has relied completely on public organ donations.
"And we were recently recognised by the health authority as a transplant centre by doing so," said Ye Qifa, executive deputy director of the hospital's liver disease research institute.
The hospital so far has facilitated 53 organ donations and performed more than 140 transplants, according to Ye.
"All donated organs went through the allocation system," he added.
Nationwide, more than 1,000 public organ donations have been made, saving at least 2,500 lives on the mainland.
But not all of them were fairly distributed via the allocation system, said Wang Haibo, director of the computerized allocation system at the University of Hong Kong.
Francis Delmonico, president of The Transplantation Society, an international NGO focused on ethical transplantation practices, said that a computerized system is a must for the fair allocation of donated organs.
"Organs for transplantation should be equitably allocated to recipients regardless of gender, ethnicity, religion, or social or financial status," he added.
The financial status of the patient or the hospital's profit must not influence the allocation system, he added.
According to Wang, China is not a member of the international NGO largely due to its use of organs from executed prisoners.
But, the situation is changing. According to Huang, a handful of transplant hospitals have applied to perform transplants free from organs from death-row prisoners.
Huang added that he expects more to follow suit after a November meeting on the practice in Hangzhou, Zhejiang province.
"A document called the Hangzhou Resolution will be announced by the China Organ Donation Committee, implementing a regulation on the source of organs for transplant to meet the commonly accepted ethical standards in the world," he said.
It's crucial for China's organ transplantation system to sustain its development given that China will gradually phase out the death penalty, he said.
"Young transplant surgeons should consider where the practice is headed in the future," he said.
Huo Feng, dean of the liver transplant centre of the General Hospital of Guangzhou Military Area Command of the PLA in Guangzhou, said that using organs of executed prisoners has long embarrassed Chinese surgeons. In June 2011, China's hospitals set up the Organ Procurement Organisation comprising eight full-time members.
"They (the members) came from different backgrounds including clinical practice, social work, research and administration," Huo said.
So far, 86 per cent of the donors have come from non-transplant hospitals, he said, urging more cooperation from transplant hospitals.
"It (the organisation) has become the vital component in the transition from using organs from executed prisoners to using public deceased organ donations," he said.
Currently, only one in 30 patients awaiting transplants are able to receive an operation due to a severe shortage of organ donations, official statistics showed.