In the past year, scientists have used gene editing techniques enabled by a technology called CRISPR to grow eye retinas, treat cancer, and create twin babies. CRISPR stands for Clustered Regularly Interspaced Short Palindromic Repeats, a group of DNA sequences found in the genomes of organisms like bacteria and archaea. Essentially, CRISPR is a gene editing tool that can be used for everything from curing previously incurable diseases to creating bigger tomatoes or leaner bacon.
Offering the hope that body parts may be built from scratch, CRISPR raises the possibility that our bodies will never wear out. It also makes it possible to create a new generation of mosquitoes that will not carry malaria, or to eliminate mosquitoes altogether, or to create mice that would no longer carry Lyme disease.
But CRISPR is causing alarm in the US intelligence community. The CIA warns that in the hands of a terrorist group like ISIS or a country like North Korea, this technology could be devastating for the world.
The 1918 Spanish flu pandemic infected 500 million people worldwide and killed up to 50 million people, including 675,000 Americans. There are fears that a new ‘designer’ epidemic — enabled by technology like CRISPR — could be even more devastating, and potentially threaten the future of humanity.
Last week, Lisa Monaco, Homeland Security Adviser to President Obama, warned that a pandemic is the greatest threat to global security: ‘The combination of a new deadly strain of flu plus air travel plus the ease with which it can be transmitted to other people. That really is the worst-case scenario.’
The warnings from the CIA and others have so far fallen on deaf ears. Politicians fail to understand the threat, and there is no pressure or motivation to establish a new arms-control regime to protect the world from this revolutionary new threat.
Even in the recent past, gene editing tools were costly. They required expensive equipment, and were largely confined to well-funded and well-staffed laboratories. CRISPR, however, can be managed with free software and a DNA starter kit available through the mail.
CRISPR allows the alteration of a human embryo to create a designer baby that might be taller or stronger or have green eyes as opposed to brown. More importantly, gene editing will produce cures for previously incurable illnesses at an accelerating rate as the research leaves the lab and enters production. CRISPR has been around since 2012, and the pace of change is accelerating. The Food and Drug Administration estimates that by 2025, between 10 and 20 new gene and cell treatments will be entering production each year.
The technology can also be used to target a specific segment of the population with a deadly disease. A bioterrorist could change the cowpox virus into deadly smallpox, which has been eradicated as a threat to humans. For the first time in human history, a Weapon of Mass Destruction has been made available to anyone, anywhere.
Terrorism aside, gene editing contains powerful and unpredictable unintended consequences. Eliminating a class of diseases in crops might have a cascading impact on animals and other plants. Some scientists argue that the idea that CRISPR can be used to edit a single page of the Book of Life may be misplaced; instead, we are editing a whole chapter by accident, with untold consequences for humanity.
In America, the National Academy of Sciences has recommended that CRISPR and other gene editing tools be used only for curing and preventing serious illnesses. But other countries, such as China, have no such constraints. Nor do countries like North Korea, which has a long history of developing and planning to use next-generation biological weapons.
No international agreements control the spread of CRISPR technology, and there is no monitoring mechanism to control the spread of the technology into the general population. So far, no nation has stepped up to lead the world in creating a regulatory environment for gene editing. Instead, America and the European Community have agreed a framework that imposes restrictions on the use of CRISPR until the consequences can be fully understood.
This control regime is not worth much without the active participation of outlying countries like North Korea, China, Russia and Iran. It’s like having a Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty without the participation and commitment of half the world’s nuclear powers.
The solution to this growing and dangerous threat is for global leadership to set some rules for the CRISPR road. An unfettered revolution places humanity at risk. It is in our common interest to control a technology that offer so much promise, but also so much peril.