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Does gene editing research pose a national security risk?


Does gene editing research pose a national security risk?

As bioethicists and scientists debate the ethics of genetic manipulation through processes like CRISPR and MRT, a recent poll shows genetic editing has yet to gain approval from the majority of Americans, including the U.S. director of national intelligence.

In January, the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health and STAT, a health and medicine news agency, polled 1,000 Americans on their opinion about emerging genetic technologies.

More than half, 65 percent, of the respondents believed editing the genes of unborn babies to reduce the risk of genetic diseases should be illegal. And 83 percent of respondents said gene editing to improve an unborn baby’s physical appearance or intelligence should be illegal.

“In an era where there seems to be no end to what some people will do to have the children they desire, it’s heartening to see that a solid majority of Americans recognize that there are limits that should be respected,” commented Christopher White, director of research and education at the Center for Bioethics and Culture.

But respondents approved altering genes after birth to treat diseases in children and adults: 59 percent responded positively to federal approval for gene therapy while only 30 percent disapproved. And though a large majority disapproved of genetic editing for the unborn, 44 percent favored government-funded research on the process.

“They support research because they think cures can come out of it,” George Annas, a bioethicist and legal scholar at Boston University, told STAT.

But such research also could lead to great evil, warned James Clapper, U.S. director of national intelligence, in his Feb. 9 statement to the Senate Armed Services Committee. Clapper classified gene editing as a potential national security risk.

Because biological and chemical advances can have dual uses, Clapper said genome research in unregulated, non-Western, countries “probably increases the risk of the creation of potentially harmful biological agents or products.” He listed genome editing as a threat under “Weapons of Mass Destruction and Proliferation.”

“Given the broad distribution, low cost, and accelerated pace of development of this dual-use technology, its deliberate or unintentional misuse might lead to far-reaching economic and national security implications,” he said.

Clapper didn’t specify how the technology could be used as a national security threat but noted advances in the technology have caused U.S. and European biologists to consider regulating it.

Courtney Crandell Courtney is a former WORLD correspondent.

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