Terror. Error. Success. These are the three outcomes that ethicists evaluating a new technology should fear. The possibility that a breakthrough might be used maliciously. The possibility that newly empowered scientists might make a catastrophic mistake. And the possibility that a technology will be so successful that it will change how we live in ways that we can only guess—and that we may not want.
These tools will allow scientists to practice genetic engineering on a scale that is simultaneously far more precise and far more ambitious than ever before.
It was true for the scientists behind the Manhattan Project, who bequeathed a fear of nuclear terror and nuclear error, even as global security is ultimately defined by these weapons of mass destruction. It was true for the developers of the automobile, whose invention has been weaponized by terrorists and kills 3,400 people by accident each day, even as the more than 1 billion cars on the road today have utterly reshaped where we live and how we move. And it is true for the researchers behind the revolution in gene editing and writing.
Put simply, these tools will allow scientists to practice genetic engineering on a scale that is simultaneously far more precise and far more ambitious than ever before. Editing techniques like CRISPR enable exact genetic repairs through a simple cut and paste of DNA, while synthetic biologists aim to redo entire genomes through the writing and substitution of synthetic genes. The technologies are complementary, and they herald an era when the book of life will be not just readable, but rewritable. Food crops, endangered animals, even the human body itself—all will eventually be programmable.
The benefits are easy to imagine: more sustainable crops; cures for terminal genetic disorders; even an end to infertility. Also easy to picture are the ethical pitfalls as the negative images of those same benefits.
Terror is the most straightforward. States have sought to use biology as a weapon at least since invading armies flung the corpses of plague victims into besieged castles. The 1975 biological weapons convention banned—with general success—the research and production of offensive bioweapons, though a handful of lone terrorists and groups like the Oregon-based Rajneeshee cult have still carried out limited bioweapon attacks. Those incidents ultimately caused little death and damage, in part because medical science is mostly capable of defending us from those pathogens that are most easily weaponized. But gene editing and writing offers the chance to engineer germs that could be far more effective than anything nature could develop. Imagine a virus that combines the lethality of Ebola with the transmissibility of the common cold—and in the new world of biology, if you can imagine something, you will eventually be able to create it.
The benefits are easy to imagine: more sustainable crops; cures for terminal genetic disorders; even an end to infertility. Also easy to picture are the ethical pitfalls.
That's one reason why James Clapper, then the U.S. director of national intelligence, added gene editing to the list of threats posed by "weapons of mass destruction and proliferation" in 2016. But these new tools aren't merely dangerous in the wrong hands—they can also be dangerous in the right hands. The list of labs accidents involving lethal bugs is much longer than you'd want to know, at least if you're the sort of person who likes to sleep at night. The U.S. recently lifted a ban on research that works to make existing pathogens, like the H5N1 avian flu virus, more virulent and transmissible, often using new technologies like gene editing. Such work can help medicine better prepare for what nature might throw at us, but it could also make the consequences of a lab error far more catastrophic. There's also the possibility that the use of gene editing and writing in nature—say, by CRISPRing disease-carrying mosquitoes to make them sterile—could backfire in some unforeseen way. Add in the fact that the techniques behind gene editing and writing are becoming simpler and more automated with every year, and eventually millions of people will be capable—through terror or error—of unleashing something awful on the world.
The good news is that both the government and the researchers driving these technologies are increasingly aware of the risks of bioterror and error. One government program, the Functional Genomic and Computational Assessment of Threats (Fun GCAT), provides funding for scientists to scan genetic data looking for the "accidental or intentional creation of a biological threat." Those in the biotech industry know to keep an eye out for suspicious orders—say, a new customer who orders part of the sequence of the Ebola or smallpox virus. "With every invention there is a good use and a bad use," Emily Leproust, the CEO of the commercial DNA synthesis startup Twist Bioscience, said in a recent interview. "What we try hard to do is put in place as many systems as we can to maximize the good stuff, and minimize any negative impact."
But the greatest ethical challenges in gene editing and writing will arise not from malevolence or mistakes, but from success. Through a new technology called in vitro gametogenesis (IVG), scientists are learning how to turn adult human cells like a piece of skin into lab-made sperm and egg cells. That would be a huge breakthrough for the infertile, or for same-sex couples who want to conceive a child biologically related to both partners. It would also open the door to using gene editing to tinker with those lab-made embryos. At first interventions would address any obvious genetic disorders, but those same tools would likely allow the engineering of a child's intelligence, height and other characteristics. We might be morally repelled today by such an ability, as many scientists and ethicists were repelled by in-vitro fertilization (IVF) when it was introduced four decades ago. Yet more than a million babies in the U.S. have been born through IVF in the years since. Ethics can evolve along with technology.
These new technologies offer control over the code of life, but only we as a society can seize control over where these tools will take us.
Fertility is just one human institution that stands to be changed utterly by gene editing and writing, and it's a change we can at least imagine. As the new biology grows more ambitious, it will alter society in ways we can't begin to picture. Harvard's George Church and New York University's Jef Boeke are leading an effort called HGP-Write to create a completely synthetic human genome. While gene editing allows scientists to make small changes to the genome, the gene synthesis that Church and his collaborators are developing allows for total genetic rewrites. "It's a difference between editing a book and writing one," Church said in an interview earlier this year.
Church is already working on synthesizing organs that would be resistant to viruses, while other researchers like Harris Wang at Columbia University are experimenting with bioengineering mammalian cells to produce nutrients like amino acids that we currently need to get from food. The horizon is endless—and so are the ethical concerns of success. What if parents feel pressure to engineer their children just so they don't fall behind their IVG peers? What if only the rich are able to access synthetic biology technologies that could make them stronger, smarter and longer lived? Could inequality become encoded in the genome?
These are questions that are different from the terror and errors fears around biosecurity, because they ask us to think hard about what kind of future we want. To their credit, Church and his collaborators have engaged bioethicists from the start of their work, as have the pioneers behind CRISPR. But the challenges coming from successful gene editing and writing are too large to be outsourced to professional ethicists. These new technologies offer control over the code of life, but only we as a society can seize control over where these tools will take us.
On the morning of April 12, 1955, newsrooms across the United States inked headlines onto newsprint: the Salk Polio vaccine was "safe, effective, and potent." This was long-awaited news. Americans had limped through decades of fear, unaware of what caused polio or how to cure it, faced with the disease's terrifying, visible power to paralyze and kill, particularly children.
The announcement of the polio vaccine was celebrated with noisy jubilation: church bells rang, factory whistles sounded, people wept in the streets. Within weeks, mass inoculation began as the nation put its faith in a vaccine that would end polio.
Today, most of us are blissfully ignorant of child polio deaths, making it easier to believe that we have not personally benefited from the development of vaccines. According to Dr. Steven Pinker, cognitive psychologist and author of the bestselling book Enlightenment Now, we've become blasé to the gifts of science. "The default expectation is not that disease is part of life and science is a godsend, but that health is the default, and any disease is some outrage," he says.
The Rise and Fall of Public Trust<p>When the polio vaccine was released in 1955, "we were nearing an all-time high point in public trust," says Matt Baum, Harvard Kennedy School professor and lead author of <a href="http://www.kateto.net/covid19/COVID19%20CONSORTIUM%20REPORT%2013%20TRUST%20SEP%202020.pdf" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer"><u>several</u></a> <a href="https://shorensteincenter.org/wp-content/uploads/2020/09/COVID19-CONSORTIUM-REPORT-14-MISINFO-SEP-2020.pdf" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer"><u>reports</u></a> measuring public trust and vaccine confidence. Baum explains that the U.S. was experiencing a post-war boom following the Allied triumph in WWII, a popular Roosevelt presidency, and the rapid innovation that elevated the country to an international superpower.</p><p> The 1950s witnessed the emergence of nuclear technology, a space program, and unprecedented medical breakthroughs, adds Emily Brunson, Texas State University anthropologist and co-chair of the Working Group on Readying Populations for COVID-19 Vaccine. "Antibiotics were a game changer," she states. While before, people got sick with pneumonia for a month, suddenly they had access to pills that accelerated recovery. </p><p>During this period, science seemed to hold all the answers; people embraced the idea that we could "come to know the world with an absolute truth," Brunson explains. Doctors were portrayed as unquestioned gods, so Americans were primed to trust experts who told them the polio vaccine was safe. </p>
The Shift in How We Consume Information<p>In the 1950s, the media created an informational consensus. The fundamental ideas the public consumed about the state of the world were unified. "People argued about the best solutions, but didn't fundamentally disagree on the factual baseline," says Baum. Indeed, the messaging around the polio vaccine was centralized and consistent, led by President Roosevelt's successful <a href="https://files.eric.ed.gov/fulltext/EJ978264.pdf" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer"><u>March of Dimes crusade</u></a>. People of lower socioeconomic status with limited access to this information were <a href="https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC1551508/?page=3" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer"><u>less likely to have confidence</u></a> in the vaccine, but most people consumed <a href="https://www.c-span.org/video/?506891-1/a-special-report-polio" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer"><u>media that assured them</u></a> of the vaccine's safety and <a href="https://www.cbsnews.com/news/the-salk-polio-vaccine-greatest-public-health-experiment-in-history/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer"><u>mobilized them</u></a> to receive it. </p><p>Today, the information we consume is no longer centralized—in fact, just the opposite. "When you take that away, it's hard for people to know what to trust and what not to trust," Baum explains. We've witnessed an increase in polarization and the technology that makes it easier to give people what they want to hear, reinforcing the human tendencies to vilify the other side and reinforce our preexisting ideas. When information is engineered to further an agenda, each choice and risk calculation made while navigating the COVID-19 pandemic <a href="https://www.nytimes.com/2020/12/19/opinion/sunday/coronavirus-science.html?referringSource=articleShare" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer"><u>is deeply politicized</u></a>. </p><p>This polarization maps onto a rise in socioeconomic inequality and economic uncertainty. These factors, associated with a sense of lost control, prime people to embrace misinformation, explains Baum, especially when the situation is difficult to comprehend. "The beauty of conspiratorial thinking is that it provides answers to all these questions," he says. Today's insidious fragmentation of news media accelerates the circulation of mis- and disinformation, reaching more people faster, regardless of veracity or motivation. In the case of vaccines, skepticism around their origin, safety, and motivation is intensified. </p><p>Alongside the rise in polarization, Pinker says "the emotional tone of the news has gone downward since the 1940s, and journalists consider it a professional responsibility to cover the negative." Relentless focus on everything that goes wrong further erodes public trust and paints a picture of the world getting worse. "Life saved is not a news story," says Pinker, but perhaps it should be, he continues. "If people were more aware of how much better life was generally, they might be more receptive to improvements that will continue to make life better. These improvements don't happen by themselves."</p>
The Future Depends on Vaccine Confidence<p>So far, the U.S. has been unable to mitigate the catastrophic effects of the pandemic through social distancing, testing, and contact tracing. President Trump has <a href="https://www.washingtonpost.com/politics/bob-woodward-rage-book-trump/2020/09/09/0368fe3c-efd2-11ea-b4bc-3a2098fc73d4_story.html" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer"><u>downplayed the effects and threat of the virus</u></a>, <a href="https://www.washingtonpost.com/outlook/2020/07/14/cdc-directors-trump-politics/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer"><u>censored experts and scientists</u></a>, <a href="https://www.theatlantic.com/science/archive/2020/06/america-giving-up-on-pandemic/612796/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer"><u>given up on containing the spread</u></a>, and <a href="https://www.nytimes.com/2020/09/16/world/covid-coronavirus.html" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer"><u>mobilized his base to protest masks</u></a>. The Trump Administration failed to devise a national plan, so our national plan has defaulted to hoping for the <a href="https://www.politico.com/news/2020/08/26/nation-of-miracles-pence-coronavirus-vaccine-rnc-402949" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer"><u>"miracle" of a vaccine</u></a>. And they are "something of a miracle," Pinker says, describing vaccines as "the most benevolent invention in the history of our species." In record-breaking time, three vaccines have arrived. But their impact will be weakened unless we achieve mass vaccination. As Brunson notes, "The technology isn't the fix; it's people taking the technology."</p><p> Significant challenges remain, including facilitating widespread access and supporting on-the-ground efforts to allay concerns and build trust with <a href="https://www.newyorker.com/news/daily-comment/african-american-resistance-to-the-covid-19-vaccine-reflects-a-broader-problem" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer"><u>specific populations with historic reasons for distrust</u></a>, says Brunson. Baum predicts continuing delays as well as deaths from other causes that will be linked to the vaccine. </p><p> Still, there's every reason for hope. The new administration "has its eyes wide open to these challenges. These are the kind of problems that are amenable to policy solutions if we have the will," Baum says. He forecasts widespread vaccination by late summer and a bounce back from the economic damage, a "Good News Story" that will bolster vaccine acceptance in the future. And Pinker reminds us that science, medicine, and public health have greatly extended our lives in the last few decades, a trend that can only continue if we're willing to roll up our sleeves. </p>
Imagine this scenario: you get an annoying cough and a bit of a fever. When you wake up the next morning you lose your sense of taste and smell. That sounds familiar, so you head to a doctor's office for a Covid test, which comes back positive.
Your next step? An anti-Covid nasal spray of course, a "trickster drug" that will clear the once-dangerous and deadly virus out of the body. The drug works by tricking the coronavirus with decoy receptors that appear to be just like those on the surface of our own cells. The virus latches onto the drug's molecules "thinking" it is breaking into human cells, but instead it flushes out of your system before it can cause any serious damage.
This may sounds like science fiction, but several research groups are already working on such trickster coronavirus drugs, with some candidates close to clinical trials and possibly even becoming available late this year. The teams began working on them when the pandemic arrived, and continued in lockdown.
Biochemist David Baker, pictured in his lab at the University of Washington.