Stop The Gene Bomb!
June 9, 2016
The ETC Group & Joel Achenbach / The Washington Post
The NAS today released a significant report about Gene Drives -- one of the most alarming developments in genetic engineering and a clear example of high-risk technology that needs to be stopped in its tracks. This first study on gene drive oversight avoids such explosive issues as militarization, commercialization, and food security. The ETC Group is working on a critical report on Gene Drives that urges that gene drive patents and governance be handed to the UN.
Stop The Gene Bomb! Comment on NAS Report on Gene Drives
The ETC Group
MONTREAL (June 8, 2016) -- Coming in at over 200 pages, today's National Academy of Sciences (NAS) report, Gene Drives on the Horizon is weighty but disappointing. It fails to properly address three of the most pressing issues raised by the controversial new technology of CRISPR-CAS9 gene drives.
Dubbed, the 'mutagenic chain reaction' by its inventors, RNA-guided gene drives are a high-leverage synthetic biology technology invented only last year. They are designed to relentlessly drive a specific genetic trait through an entire species or population -- potentially driving species to extinction.
This capability to reshape entire natural populations and ecosystems raises significant threats to peace, biodiversity and food security which is why a high profile study of this kind was mobilized in such record time.
Yet, inexplicably, the NAS's report entirely fails to address the problems that will follow from agricultural commercialization of the technology and gives short shrift to the military and security implications of gene drive development.
Since commercialization, food security and militarization are among the most explosive issues raised by these developments, their near absence in the report is puzzling. The NAS study was co-funded by DARPA (a US military agency) and the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation (a global agricultural funder). Both institutions are heavily invested in gene drive research.
"Historians may come to see last year's invention of a working Gene Drive as biology's 'nuclear' moment. Like the first nuclear chain reaction three quarters of a century ago, the 'mutagenic chain reaction' denotes awesome power, potential widespread destruction and has significant geopolitical ramifications" explains Jim Thomas, Programme Director with ETC Group.
"The current handful of gene drive pioneers argue that their new tool could wipe out malaria or save endangered birds however it is clear to all that any promises by the inventors come bundled with enormous threats."
Militarization: There are many scenarios for potential weaponisation of gene drives (e.g. via engineered insects, targeting the human microbiome or intentional suppression of food harvests or pollinators) as well as serious potential ramifications from unintended effects.
This means that gene drive technology will quickly and inevitably end up controlled by powerful military actors and that decisions on gene drive use and deployment will come to be primarily determined by geopolitical and security concerns (as well as commercial and trade interests).
It is relevant that half of the funding for this study came from a US Defense agency (DARPA) who have made it known that they themselves are going all-in on research and development of gene drives and 'robust' synthetic organisms.
It is however astonishing that this report (which surveyed governance) entirely failed to mention two of the most relevant international governance instruments that will need to be brought into play to respond to the security and peace threats posed by gene drives.
The UN Environmental Modification treaty (ENMOD) was negotiated to address exactly the sort of widespread environmental modifications that gene drives could effect. While ENMOD hasn't met for some years it could be reconvened fairly easily. The Biological Weapons Convention (BWC) already began to discuss gene drives at its most recent meeting in Geneva last December.
Agricultural Commercialization: The report also entirely fails to acknowledge the strong commercial drivers that may bring gene drives into agricultural use, potentially derailing precautionary governance. While public discussion of gene drives has been intentionally dominated by speculative health and conservation applications, it is the agricultural applications that could eventually come to dominate in view of the commercial interests of large agribusiness companies.
The NAS report considered one agricultural case study (case study 6) of engineering pigweed to be susceptible to glyphosate but oddly failed to address how such an application would enhance agricultural monopoly (e.g. for Monsanto).
There was also no consideration of how gene drives might transform agriculture and food systems or impact Farmers' Rights and Food Sovereignty. The report did note that if pigweed in North America was suppressed by a gene drive it could inadvertently end up reducing harvests of amaranth, an important food source in South America.
The lack of of consideration of food security implications is a particularly troubling gap in light of the claims in the existing published patent application on gene drives (WO2015105928). This patent application by the University of Harvard includes a long list of over 50 weeds and almost 200 herbicides that the technology could be used against, thereby laying out a business case for licensing the patent to major agrochemical companies.
"ETC Group understands from its research that both Monsanto and Syngenta are closely watching this technology" explains ETC Group's Asia Director, Neth Daño. "Neither Harvard nor any other private entity should have that power to license gene drive technology to agribusiness nor indeed anyone else."
Given the power and significance of these techniques, ETC Group proposes that all intellectual property relating to gene drives should be surrendered to a neutral international body under multilateral UN governance.
This would be analogous to the steps that were taken by governments to control intellectual property around nuclear technologies seventy-five years ago. The topic of gene drives should also urgently be taken up by the UN Committee on World Food Security when it meets in Rome in October.
Global Biodiversity Governance: One thing the the NAS report gets right is the importance of global governance for biodiversity implications, stating in several places that "a gene drive knows no political boundaries."
The committee correctly identifies the UN Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD) and its protocols as one of the key international governance bodies that must address gene drive governance (the other three that it fails to mention are ENMOD, the Biological Weapons Convention and the Committee on World Food Security).
ETC Group agrees and believes that strong international governance over gene drive research should be established swiftly at the CBD, beginning with a global moratorium on the release and commercial development of gene drives. This would be in line with this report's key recommendation that there is insufficient evidence to support the environmental release of gene drives.
The 194 countries that are parties to the CBD will be making decisions on governance of synthetic biology at its conference of the Parties (COP13) in Cancun in December 2016 (gene drives are a synthetic biology application). The CBD's own expert group on Synthetic Biology (the Ad Hoc Technical Expert Group on Synthetic Biology) has already raised the topic of gene drives and should look in more depth at this topic.
The expert risk assessment body of the Cartagena Protocol (the AHTEG on Risk Assessment) should also address risk assessment of gene drives in its current review of risk assessment of Synthetic Biology techniques.
Jim Thomas is the Programme Director for the ETC Group
Genetically Engineered Bugs to Fight Malaria and Zika?
Not So Fast, Experts Say
Joel Achenbach / The Washington Post
(June 8, 2016) -- It is premature to fight malaria, Zika, Lyme and other diseases with genetically engineered insects or other animals that have been designed to spread their modified genes in the wild, according to an expert panel convened by the National Academies of Science, Engineering and Medicine.
But the group, saying such a "gene drive" offers promise in combating diseases or saving endangered species, concluded that experimental research should continue, including carefully controlled field tests.
The panel's report, released Wednesday, has no force of law but will likely be influential in the debate about how, when and whether to use gene-drive technology to suppress the spread of pathogens. It comes amid mounting concerns about the Zika virus, which can be spread by mosquitoes and is linked to a spike in birth defects in South America.
The National Academies formed the group in response to the recent development of gene-drive techniques. The field of biotechnology is in the midst of a revolution, in part due to a new gene-editing tool known as CRISPR, which mimics a system invented by bacteria to defend themselves against viruses. With CRISPR, scientists can easily manipulate the genetic code of almost any organism.
An earlier National Academies report, released last month, gave what could be described as a nuanced endorsement of genetically engineered (GE) crops. This new report is a close cousin, focusing on a subset of GE animals, including disease-carrying insects, in which the modified genes are designed to spread like wildfire through nature and have the potential to reduce populations or even, in theory, to drive a species to extinction. It can also protect species that are assaulted by invasive pathogens.
The new report has a more cautious tone than the crop study — more akin to a flashing red light (stop and proceed if all is clear) rather than a flashing yellow. The panel did not object to gene-drive technology in theory but said there are too many uncertainties in how it would play out. Its report states:
"There is insufficient evidence available at this time to support the release of gene-drive modified organisms into the environment. However, the potential of gene drives for basic and applied research are significant and justify proceeding with laboratory research and highly-controlled field trials."
The report said the accelerated pace of innovation in genetic engineering is both a positive and a negative. Gene-modified organisms could help eradicate vector-borne diseases and could help boost populations of endangered species (by targeting diseases that are driving down their numbers). But society should resist the temptation to deploy gene-drive organisms in a crisis, the report states:
"The presumed efficiency of gene-drive modified organisms may lead to calls for their release in perceived crisis situations before there is adequate knowledge of ecological effects, and before mitigation plans for unintended harmful consequences are in place."
That's a recurring theme in the 202-page report: This is a new science with a lot of unknowns.
It also has "many, many promising features," said James Collins, co-chair of the panel and a professor of natural history at Arizona State University. But he raised the possibility that a gene-drive effort targeting a pathogen carried by one species might ultimately fail if the pathogen adapted and became endemic in a different species.
And there might be other anticipated changes to ecosystems, the group warned.
"We have proof of concept in four species in highly controlled, narrowly defined laboratory environments," said Elizabeth Heitman, associate professor of medical ethics at Vanderbilt University Medical Center and co-chair of the panel. "Much of what we talk about as benefit and harm is speculative."
Gene-drive technology is distinct from more conventional forms of genetic engineering, because the goal is to let the new genes drift through a broader population, propagated by sexual reproduction, rather than have them remain confined to, say, a patch of corn or soybeans. In laboratory experiments, gene drives have been successful in fruit flies, yeast and mosquitoes.
There have already been attempts to use genetic engineering as a form of pest control, but these did not constitute gene drives because they didn't endure through multiple future generations.
For example, in Brazil, authorities have approved a plan to fight the Zika virus using genetically engineered mosquitoes that carry a self-destruct gene. These mosquitoes have been raised with nutrients that deactivate the lethal gene. When the males are released into the wild, their offspring carry the self-destruct gene and die before maturity.
The panel, echoing other recent reviews of CRISPR and associated technologies, urges a broad societal discussion about how genetic engineering proceeds.
"The question of how human beings manipulate nature, whether that's a moral action or not, is not a new question," Heitman said. "We've not answered that question successfully in any other technology."
The biotech watchdog ETC Group called the new report "disappointing" in a release headlined "Stop the Gene Bomb!" The organization said the new report failed to address many of the potential hazards and societal implications of the new technology, including possible use of gene drives for military purposes. For example, the organization said, gene drives could be a biological weapon targeting the human microbiome.
The organization also fears that the technology will be patented and exploited for commercial purposes by large biotech corporations, including Monsanto, the frequent target of activists who oppose biotech generally.
"Historians may come to see last year's invention of a working Gene Drive as biology's 'nuclear' moment. Like the first nuclear chain reaction three quarters of a century ago, the 'mutagenic chain reaction' denotes awesome power, potential widespread destruction and has significant geopolitical ramifications," ETC Group spokesman Jim Thomas said in the release.
"Species-wide Gene Editing, Applauded and Feared, Gets a Push," June 8, 2016, New York Times
"New Genetic Engineering Method Called Promising -- And Perilous," June 8, 2016, NPR
For more information, contact:
Jim Thomas, Programme Director, ETC Group (Montreal, Canada). firstname.lastname@example.org