The dangers of genetic engineering | Opinion
Sars-CoV-2 may not have been intentionally engineered, but the world stares at a crisis
United States (US) President Donald Trump has said that Covid-19 either was intentionally engineered or resulted from a lab accident at the Wuhan Institute of Virology in China. He may be right about it having been a lab accident, and China bears responsibility for the carnage occurring worldwide. But the virus likely wasn’t deliberately engineered — despite recent reports.
A research report in Nature Medicine contradicts the likelihood of intentional engineering of a pathogen for military use, on the basis that Sars-CoV-2 isn’t a mishmash of known viruses as the authors would expect of an engineered virus. “If someone were seeking to engineer a new coronavirus as a pathogen, they would have constructed it from the backbone of a virus known to cause illness,” the researchers said.
But genetic engineering could well be the cause of the next pandemic — and India needs to be as prepared for this. Covid-19 has brought India’s economy to its knees even as it left China practically unscathed. This has undoubtedly brought home to the Communist Party of China (CPC) that biological pathogens can be as destructive as nuclear missiles — and have almost no geopolitical repercussions.
What is worse, it isn’t just China. The technologies have democratised to such a degree that any country can engineer viruses. To start with, a lab would need to obtain the genetic information of viruses. The first genetic sequencing of the bacterium Escherichia coli was in the 1990s, when sequencing the bacterium’s four-and-a-half million base pairs took weeks of effort and tens of millions of dollars. Today, to spell out the three billion base pairs that dictate the construction and maintenance of a human being costs about $1,000 in the US and can be done in hours.
The next step in engineering a virus is to modify the genome of the existing pathogen to change its effects. One technology in particular makes it almost as easy to engineer life forms as it is to edit Microsoft Word documents. Clustered Regularly Interspaced Short Palindromic Repeats (CRISPR) gene editing, developed only a few years ago, deploys the same natural mechanism that bacteria use to trim pieces of genetic information from one genome and insert it into another. This mechanism, which bacteria developed over millennia to defend themselves from viruses, has been turned into a cheap, simple, quick way to edit the DNA of any organism in the lab.
To set up a CRISPR editing capability, the experimenter need only order a fragment of ribonucleic acid (RNA) and purchase off-the-shelf chemicals and enzymes on the Internet. Because it’s so cheap and easy to use, thousands of scientists all over the world are experimenting with CRISPR-based gene editing projects. Very little of this research is limited by regulations.
China, having taken the lead because it puts technological progress ahead of all other concerns, including safety and ethics, has made the most astonishing breakthroughs.
In 2014, Chinese scientists announced they had successfully produced monkeys that had been genetically modified at the embryonic stage. In April 2015, another group of researchers in China published a paper detailing the first-ever effort to edit the genes of a human embryo. The attempt failed, but it shocked the world: This wasn’t supposed to happen so soon.
And then, in April 2016, another group of Chinese researchers reported having succeeded in modifying the genome of a human embryo not brought to term, in an effort to make it resistant to HIV infection. In November 2018, Chinese researcher He Jiankui announced that he had created the first “CRISPR babies” — infants whose genomes had been edited before birth. There was a global uproar, and this led the Chinese authorities — who, Jiankui claims, had supported his efforts — to jail him. But the Rubicon of biomedical science had been crossed. CRISPR isn’t the only genetic technology we need to worry about. A broader field, “synthetic biology”, is making the tools for genetic engineering widely available.
Using brute-force DNA-manipulation methods, researchers have demonstrated that they can recreate deadly viruses such as that of smallpox, which took humanity decades to eradicate, and specimens of which are kept under high security in government labs in the US and Russia. In 2017, a research team at the University of Alberta in Canada created from scratch an extinct relative of smallpox, horsepox, by stitching together fragments of mail-order DNA. This took six months and cost about $100,000. Once the researchers had assembled the genome and introduced it into cells infected by another type of poxvirus, the cells began to produce infectious particles.
Horsepox is not known to harm humans, but could be used to recreate smallpox — for a fraction of the cost the Alberta researchers expended — if edited with CRISPR.
There should have been international treaties to prevent the use of CRISPR for gene-editing humans or animals; governments should have placed restrictions on labs doing the type of research that the University of Alberta and Wuhan Institute of Virology (among others) did. But there have been no checks or balances, and it is too late to stop the global spread of these technologies. The genie is out of the bottle.
The only solution, now, is to accelerate the good side of these technologies and build defences. In the second part of this article tomorrow, I will explain the types of bio-defences that India can and must build.