It is often said that if it can be imagined, it will inevitably be done. And such a sentiment could not be any truer in terms of applying genetic engineering and synthetic biology to the genomes of our planet’s organisms including humans themselves.
While the process of synthesizing and arranging genetic code has many processes, perhaps none has been as promising as the CRISPR-Cas system. From laboratory experiments to emerging software used to create code genetically almost as easily as code for a computer, gene editing has never been easier, opening the door to never-before-possible applications.
Perhaps no technology yet has been poised to change the world so profoundly. All life on Earth, every living organism, now stands the possibility of potentially being “edited” on the most basic genetic level, enhancing or degrading it, but forever changing it.
Gene editing or “gene therapy” performed on children or adults changes the genetic makeup of targeted cells after which and upon dividing, impart this new genetic material on each subsequent new cell. This is why treatments for diseases using gene therapy often are successful with only a single shot. The “treatment” self-replicates perpetually within the patient’s body. Everything from leukemia to congenial genetic defects have been overcome in clinical trials using this method.
As far as science knows, these changes cannot be passed onto the offspring of patients. However, changing the genetic makeup of a human at their earliest stages of development can be passed on, spreading genetic changes made in labs onto the greater population.
The Biggest Threats: The Jab and Slow Kill
Talk of gene editing usually revolves around its use to treat diseases and produce super-crops and livestock to “save the world.” But as history has shown us, any technology is but a double edged sword. Whatever good it is capable of, it is proportionally capable of just as much bad.
The first and foremost danger of human gene editing in particular is its use in weaponized vaccines. Such fears are founded upon what was revealed by the United Nations during the apartheid government in South Africa where a government program named “Project Coast” actually endeavored to produce vaccines that were race-specific in hopes of sterilizing or killing off its black population.
The United Nations in a report titled Project Coast: Apartheid’s Chemical and Biological Warfare Programme would admit:
One example of this interaction involved anti-fertility work. According to documents from RRL [Roodeplaat Research Laboratories], the facility had a number of registered projects aimed at developing an anti-fertility vaccine. This was a personal project of the first managing director of RRL, Dr Daniel Goosen. Goosen, who had done research into embryo transplants, told the TRC that he and Basson had discussed the possibility of developing an anti-fertility vaccine which could be selectively administered—without the knowledge of the recipient. The intention, he said, was to administer it to black South African women without their knowledge.
At the time, the technology to accomplish such a feat never materialized. Now it has.
Another danger is “slow kill.” This would be the process of using gene editing to affect individuals directly or through a genetically modified food supply subtly, infecting or killing off targeted demographic groups over a longer period of time. The advantage of this method would be the ambiguity surrounding what was causing upticks in “cancer” and other maladies brought on by degraded immune systems and overall health.
And while some might be tempted to claim the dangers of this technology being used against populations remains solely in the realm of “Nazi eugenicists” and racist South African regimes, the truth of the matter is even Washington has penned policy papers advocating weapons deployed amid the “world of microbes.”
Mentioned in the US Neo-Conservative Project for a New American Century’s (PNAC) 2000 report titled Rebuilding America’s Defenses it stated:
The proliferation of ballistic and cruise missiles and long-range unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) will make it much easier to project military power around the globe. Munitions themselves will become increasingly accurate, while new methods of attack – electronic, “non-lethal,” biological – will be more widely available. (p.71 of .pdf)
Although it may take several decade for the process of transformation to unfold, in time, the art of warfare on air, land, and sea will be vastly different than it is today, and “combat” likely will take place in new dimensions: in space, “cyber-space,” and perhaps the world of microbes. (p.72 of .pdf)
And advanced forms of biological warfare that can “target” specific genotypes may transform biological warfare from the realm of terror to a politically useful tool. (p.72 of .pdf)
Biological warfare that can “target” specific genotypes is precisely what is now possible in the advent of improved gene editing. While many may suspect profit alone drives large pharmaceutical corporations to push vaccines on the global population, in reality, what it may also represent is an attempt by these very conspirators to create a well established globalized medium through which to administer their targeted bioweapons, yet another reason why the matter of human healthcare and biotechnology (and specifically vaccines) is a matter of not just business, but of national security as well.
Overwriting the Planet’s Genetic Heritage
Recently, Chinese scientists have crossed what many Western commentators, scientists and others have claimed is an “ethical line” by applying gene editing to human embryos. Critics have condemned the move specifically because any human “edited” while at their embryonic stage would likely transfer those genetic changes to any offspring they had upon becoming an adult.
Yet many of these critics have been vocal advocates for precisely the same use of biotech, though not for humans, but rather for our food supply. Genetically modified organisms (GMOs), particularly modified crops transfer their artificially altered genetic code to its next generation. Cross pollination has repeatedly contaminated the fields of farmers not using GMOs, creating an expanding controversy and multiple lawsuits and legal reviews.
In reality, all genetic editing, especially when it alters the genetic material of subsequent generations, represents a potential threat to the genetic heritage of the entire planet with potential consequences we may still not fully understand. In a world where the “science is final” regarding humanity’s impact on the planet’s climate, demanding “urgent action” to stop or reverse it, the absence of a similar impetus behind stopping the contamination of our planet’s genetic heritage seems suspiciously hypocritical if not utterly reckless and even intentional.
Of course, gene editing will be done, with or without the approval of governments and the people they govern. However, measures should be developed and put in place to preserve the natural genetic heritage of the planet, and such measures should be decentralized as much as possible.
The James Bond-esque “Svalbard Global Seed Vault” in the frigid climate of Norway represents a sort of “backup” for many of the planet’s horticultural species, but is controlled by the very interests intentionally destroying the planet’s genomes. It represents essentially a criminal gang preparing to sink the ship, but only after securing for themselves the only lifeboat available.
More lifeboats must be made available and it will require the understanding of policymakers of this emerging technology and the threats it presents, along with national and local policies to hedge against these threats.
The West Trapped in its Own Hypocrisy
Ironically, the West’s own hypocrisy has tied its hands in condemning China’s moves to recklessly alter the human genomes of embryos. Not only is the West’s attitude toward GMOs in general now hurting their case against China, the prevailing attitude in the West that embryos are not even “human” is also critically hypocritical, regardless of how irrational, unscientific and unqualified (however very politically convenient) such an attitude is.
To the West, unborn children are virtually “garbage” to be thrown away on a whim. So the Chinese might be forgiven for thinking it is perfectly ok to experiment recklessly upon them. In reality a human being’s unique genetic code and the metabolic cellular activity that constitutes the beginning of its life… both of which perpetuate themselves uninterrupted until birth and continues on until death, natural or otherwise … begins at conception. As such, experimenting on a human embryo may not superficially “feel” or “look” like human experimentation, but scientifically it is.
The West is quite right about condemning China for its experimentation on human embryos, however its confused self-serving hypocrisy has made this condemnation incoherent and unfortunately irrelevant.
Regardless, those nations still adhering to a sense of both objective science and humanity can and must set a precedent based on the above described realities. They must recognize the threats and abuses this technology poses equally with its benefits. They must educate their populations to understand the difference between the two, and the importance of developing a national biotechnology initiative as a matter of both national security and progress. But above all, they must understand that biotechnology represents the next big revolution, after information technology, and begin building the necessary infrastructure to support it.
Without doing so, nations will find themselves ill-prepared to either capitalize on its benefits or defend against its many and incredibly dangerous abuses.
Weaponization, accidents and even the prospect of globalized corporations finding, then making inaccessible the cures to diseases and conditions affecting millions such as cancer, diabetes and heart disease are all threats we now face, whether we would like to admit it or not. One point the West correctly made upon its hand wringing over China’s most recent and reckless leap forward, was that the matter of biotechnology’s profound impact on the human genome and the genetic heritage of the entire planet is no longer the subject of a “future” scenario. It is a matter of present concern.
Ulson Gunnar, a New York-based geopolitical analyst and writer especially for the online magazine “New Eastern Outlook”.