China has pledged to phase out the chilling practice of harvesting organs from death row inmates for transplant within three to five years.
Efforts were on to establish a national organ donation programme and encourage voluntary donations from citizens, Huang Jiefu told reporters in the eastern China city of Hangzhou on Thursday.
But the pledge also means that the practice, which has been denounced by rights groups as a total violation of human rights, would continue till the replacement mechanism was in place. Also, the process of harvesting organs from condemned prisoners has always remained shrouded in secrecy.
One obstacle to abolishing it is the scale of the problem: health ministry statistics reveal that about 1.5 million people in China need transplants, but only some 10,000 transplants are performed annually.
"The pledge to abolish organ donations from condemned prisoners represents the resolve of the government," he said.
To firm up the mechanism, trial systems were launched in 16 of the Chinese mainland's 31 provincial-level regions, Huang said
Earlier in March, Huang had admitted that executed prisoners were still the main source of organs used in transplant operations in China due to the lack of voluntary donations.
High demand and a chronic shortage of donations meant they remained a key source, the Legal Daily had quoted Huang Jiefu as saying.
In 2009, Huang said the rights of death-row inmates were respected and written consent from prisoners was required before their organs could be harvested, the China Daily said at the time.
However, international human rights groups have accused China of harvesting organs from executed prisoners without their or their family's consent.
Amnesty International China researcher Sarah Schafer told AFP: "there's no way a prisoner facing execution can give meaningful consent."
On Thursday, Huang said that China has advocated the prudent use of the death penalty over recent years, which has led to a decrease in organ donations from condemned prisoners.
"Such changes have posed challenges for the traditional Chinese way of transplanting organs," Huang said.
He also said that fungal infection rates and bacterial infection rates for condemned prisoners' organs are usually very high; therefore, the long-term survival rates for people with transplanted organs in China are always below those of people in other countries.