Why would someone compare genetic editing to weapons of mass destruction? Perhaps one answer can be found in the automobile. The family automobile was certainly not designed as a weapon of terror but lately it has been used as such, in recent attacks. The automobile also causes thousands of unintended injuries and fatalities daily.
As suggested in a recent informative and thought-provoking article published in Leapsmag, we face three potential scenarios in connection with the rapidly-expanding field of genetic engineering.
The first is obviously its potential success which will greatly change our lives. The second pertains to the occasional scientific errors. The third involves weaponizing biology, something that has been happening for centuries.
An even more thought-provoking idea is that gene editing will eventually be in the hands of millions just as the massive IBM computer segued into a hand-held device.
We have already seen the scientific world rocked by the discovery that Dr. He Jiankui secretly gene-edited twin baby girls. Although there was immediate opposition by the scientific community, other scientists announced similar intentions.
The Leapsmag author takes us on even more serious, hypothetical journey. He asks us to imagine Ebola acquiring the same ease of transmission as the common cold. His theory is that if something is imaginable in this new high tech world, someone will eventually create it.
The First Scenario: The Success of Genetic Engineering
The future benefits of genetic engineering are endless. Now almost a household word, CRISPR’s gene-editing technique makes genetic repairs to DNA through a cut-and-paste process.
On the other side of the aisle, synthetic biologists intend to reorganize the entire genome through the substitution of synthetic genes.
Although seemingly opposed, these two technologies actually compliment each other. They will eventually have a significant impact on food crops, animals that are considered an endangered species, infertility, and cures for terminal genetic diseases. “All of the above” will be programmable.
Yet, (and possibly not intended), ethical pitfalls are bound to accompany such immeasurable success.
The Second Scenario: Scientific Errors or Accidents
The U.S. ban on research making existing pathogens (organisms causing disease in other organisms) stronger and more transmissible was recently lifted. Gene editing is often involved in this type of research.
As you can imagine, there is a long list of accidents involving disease-transmitting bugs. An example involves the UK with over 100 accidents reported over a five year period in high-security laboratories. These labs work with lethal viruses and bacteria. A lab error under such as circumstances can be catastrophic.
Scientists are working on turning human cells into sperm and egg cells in laboratories. If successful, that means a whole new world that will conquer infertility for many childless couples, including same-sex couples.
It would be tempting, as in the case of Dr. He Jiankui’s gene-edited twins, to alter embryos that are created in the lab. Over forty years ago, ethicists, as well as scientists, were shocked at the idea of in-vitro fertilization (IVF). Fast forward to 2019 and the realization that over eight million “test-tube babies” have been born through IVF. The stigma it faced is largely diminished. The acceptance of IVF may mean that ethics evolves with technology.
The Third Scenario: Weaponizing Biology
The general public has been somewhat protected from biological weaponry since the biological weapons convention of 1975. The convention banned the production and even the research of bioweapons which are the deadliest weapons ever produced.
In 2016 during his term as director of U.S. national intelligence, James Clapper was responsible for the addition of gene editing to the list of weapons of mass destruction posing a threat to the United States.
There are currently about sixteen countries that have access to biological weapons. The list includes Canada, China, Cuba, France, Germany, Iran, Iraq, Israel, Japan, Libya, North Korea, Russia, South Africa, Syria, the United Kingdom, and the United States.
It is obvious that this type of conflict would have a global impact.
It is difficult to distinguish between biological research that is legitimate versus that which is harmful. Each uses the same equipment and the same knowledge.
And Now the Good News
The good news is that the researchers and the U.S. government are cognizant of the risks. Currently, funding has been provided to allow scientists using genetic data to search for either accidental or intentional development of biological threats.