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The Disappointing NAS Gene Drive Report

Posted by Pete Shanks on June 30th, 2016


On June 8, the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine issued a report about gene drives, titled:

Gene Drives on the Horizon: Advancing Science, Navigating Uncertainty, and Aligning Research with Public Values

The headline of the associated press release summed it up succinctly:

Gene-Drive Modified Organisms Are Not Ready to Be Released Into Environment; New Report Calls for More Research and Robust Assessment

Francis Collins, director of the National Institutes of Health, commended the authors for a "thoughtful and comprehensive review of the unprecedented potential and challenge of gene drive technologies." Thatís true enough. It is a valuable resource for a much-needed public debate ó but it is sadly incomplete, and occasionally misleading. 

The reportís skepticism about "reversal drives" is welcome (see Recommendation 5-5, p. 99) but inadequate. If gene drive technology goes wrong, is the solution really to be more gene drive? Indeed, Kevin Esvelt, one of the pioneers of (and an advocate for) gene drive told The New York Times that the report failed to adequately flag its central risk. 

"They assume you can safely run a contained field trial," he said. "But anytime you release an organism with a gene drive system into the wild you must assume there is a significant chance that it will spread ó globally ó and factor that in."

The report makes repeatedly admits that field research is most likely to occur in "low- and middle-income countries" (p. 6 etc), recognizes "that many countries lack the capacity to develop a comprehensive regulatory scheme for gene drives from scratch" (p. 8), and the like. These should be warning flags. If technology really can help underdeveloped nations, the impetus should come from them. And the U.S. is not a party to the multilateral Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD) and its protocols, which aims to promote fair and equitable sharing of benefits arising from genetic resources. U.S. institutions are developing technology that, if applied, will mostly be used elsewhere. Centuries of exploitation do not suggest that wealthy foreigners are the best judges of humanitarian needs. 

(Or perhaps we should invite Cuban doctors to set up clinics in Appalachia?)

The report also appears to downplay the possibility of "weaponizing" gene drive technology. The worst case ó a deliberately belligerent release of modified pathogens ó would surely rank with nuclear destruction as a prospect to be avoided; and mere mistakes could be as bad. There is a reason the ETC Group titled its comment [pdf] on the report:

Stop the Gene Bomb!

Jim Thomas of the ETC Group wrote an excellent article about the report for the Guardian, calling for the CBD to agree on an international moratorium on release of gene drives. Friends of the Earth asked sardonically, "Permanently changing a species: What could go wrong?" and called for a moratorium. Ron Bailey of Reason initially wrote an apparently knee-jerk response ("Go slow and let more people suffer and die") which misunderstood Esveltís position; he then appended a much more interesting Correction acknowledging that "How to regulate an open access commons is always a perplexing problem." Michael Specter in The New Yorker called the National Academiesí effort "a worthy, if somewhat tepid, report," and Stanfordís Hank Greely agreed, in a valuable blog post that made "Eight Quick Points."

Finally, the report sometimes reads as though its goal was not so much "aligning research with public values" as "aligning public values with research." Itís striking that the "stakeholders" mentioned do not appear to include any of the civil-society groups widely known to have raised concerns about this issue. "Stakeholders" are described (Figure 7-1, p. 122) as "people with direct professional or personal interests in gene drives." May I raise my hand? I work with the Center for Genetics and Society; other public interest organizations that have been involved with gene drive deliberations include ETC GroupFriends of the Earth, and International Center for Technology Assessment.

Unfortunately, the initial flurry of reactions seems to have died down. Gene drive could be a major disruptive technology. It could affect not only our environment ó the "out there" ó but our food and even our selves. This report deserves to provoke a massive, global debate. A long pause for reflection is the least that is needed. Or T. S. Eliot may have finally been proved correct:

This is the way the world ends
Not with a bang but a whimper.

Previously on Biopolitical Times:





Posted in Pete Shanks's Blog Posts, Synthetic Biology, US Federal


Comments

Comments are now closed for this item.

  1. Comment by myob, Jul 1st, 2016 7:26am

    Among mutually hostile states, there are super-affluent sets that may be unrestrained from maximizing human testing of gene drive in the pursuit of a genocidal advantage. We can be certain that such an arms race is possible, and no state will accept being beaten in such an arms race, and thus such an arms race is certain.

    This means that deliberate misuse is coming, and the consequences are almost certainly what US Intelligence has warned: "far-reaching economic and national security implications."

    If we face this reality, then we will

    (1) Do everything we can to help people of good will safely advance positive and defensive applications of this technology as quickly as possible.

    (2) Prepare collectively for the economic consequences.

    We will know we are collectively facing reality when we collectively recognize we must do these two things. Many are looking hard at the first because many suggest there may possibly be a way to move forward quickly and positively, but we are not close to finding that way, and until we find it we will collectively refuse to admit we must find it because the fear is disabling. This shortfall means that we must address the second with even greater urgency, but we are not looking hard at the second because very few suggest there may be a way to prepare economically.

    This dos not mean there is not a way to prepare.

    Among the few whom grasp this reality are a few whom are working to find solutions, and among them are a few whom read everything posted on the topic.


  2. Comment by myob, Jul 1st, 2016 7:23am

    Among mutually hostile states, there are super-affluent sets that may be unrestrained from maximizing human testing of gene drive in the pursuit of a genocidal advantage. We can be certain that such an arms race is possible, and no state one will accept being beaten in such an arms race, and thus such an arms race is certain.

    This means that deliberate misuse is coming, and the consequences are almost certainly what US Intelligence has warned: "far-reaching economic and national security implications."

    If we face this reality, then we will

    (1) Do everything we can to help people of good will safely advance positive and defensive applications of this technology as quickly as possible.

    (2) Prepare collectively for the economic consequences.

    We will know we are collectively facing reality when we collectively recognize we must do these two things. Many are looking hard at the first because many suggest there may possibly be a way to move forward quickly and positively, but we are not close to finding that way, and until we find it we will collectively refuse to admit we must find it because the fear is disabling. This shortfall means that we must address the second with even greater urgency, but we are not looking hard at the second because very few suggest there may be a way to prepare economically.

    This dos not mean there is not a way to prepare.

    Among the few whom grasp this reality are a few whom are working to find solutions, and among them are a few whom read everything posted on the topic.



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