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Could gene editing tools such as CRISPR be used as a biological weapon?

Published: November 27, 2017
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Source: HSN

The gene editing technique CRISPR has been in the limelight after scientists reported they had used it to safely remove disease in human embryos for the first time. Concerns are mounting that gene editing could be used in the development of biological weapons. In 2016, Bill Gates remarked that “the next epidemic could originate on the computer screen of a terrorist intent on using genetic engineering to create a synthetic version of the smallpox virus”. More recently, in July 2017, John Sotos, of Intel Health & Life Sciences, stated that gene editing research could “open up the potential for bioweapons of unimaginable destructive potential.” Biological warfare is not an inevitable consequence of advances in the life sciences. The development and use of such weapons requires agency. It requires countries making the decision to steer the direction of life science research and development away from hostile purposes. An imperfect international convention cannot guarantee that these states will always decide against the hostile exploitation of biology. Yet it can influence such decisions by shaping an environment in which the disadvantages of pursuing such weapons outweigh the advantages.

The gene editing technique CRISPR has been in the limelight after scientists reported they had used it to safely remove disease in human embryos for the first time. This follows a “CRISPR craze” over the last couple of years, with the number of academic publications on the topic growing steadily.

There are good reasons for the widespread attention to CRISPR. The technique allows scientists to “cut and paste” DNA more easily than in the past. It is being applied to a number of different peaceful areas, ranging from cancer therapies to the control of disease carrying insects.

Some of these applications – such as the engineering of mosquitoes to resist the parasite that causes malaria – effectively involve tinkering with ecosystems. CRISPR has therefore generated a number of ethical and safety concerns. Some also worry that applications being explored by defense organizations that involve “responsible innovation in gene editing” may send worrying signals to other states.

Concerns are also mounting that gene editing could be used in the development of biological weapons. In 2016, Bill Gates remarkedthat “the next epidemic could originate on the computer screen of a terrorist intent on using genetic engineering to create a synthetic version of the smallpox virus”. More recently, in July 2017, John Sotos, of Intel Health & Life Sciences, stated that gene editing research could “open up the potential for bioweapons of unimaginable destructive potential.”

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