We must not place hurdles on the positive uses of gene editing in order to satisfy our collective fear, uncertainty and doubt.
Even if this week’s news – that He Jiankui, a Chinese scientist, has produced gene-edited babies – had been found to be false, it would only have been a matter of time before someone did it successfully. The technique used for gene-editing, called CRISPR-Cas9, is relatively simple to use and a decent laboratory anywhere in the world will be able to carry it out.
You can’t un-invent this. And if you try to ban it, you’ll drive the industry underground, which means only the unscrupulous and the shady will have access to it, and good people won’t. Gene editing is not like nuclear weapons whose manufacture needs a lot of money, lots of space, a complicated global supply chain and government support. As Sandhya Ramesh reports in ThePrint, you can order a gene-editing kit online for $159. So, it is something that a good laboratory technician can do without too much money or attracting too much attention.
Amid all the outrage over unsubstantiated claims, contravention of academic rules, violation of ethical principles and irresponsible tinkering with the human genome, we must not lose sight of one simple fact: the genie is out of the bottle, and it can’t be put back in.
Every new technological innovation takes us into a brave new world: at every moment in the history of the world, almost in every society, conventional wisdom has feared that a new invention would cause a cataclysm. After August 1945, our grandparents and parents thought the world will end in a nuclear war. We can’t imagine the psychology of fear of nuclear annihilation that was prevalent during the depths of the Cold War. Nuclear weapons took the clock close to midnight, several close shaves with disaster, but hey, we’re still here. We’ve learnt to stop worrying and live with the bomb. Meanwhile, nuclear technology has delivered tremendous benefits to humanity and is now taken for granted.
There’s a Zen parable of a monk hanging on to dear life from a bush on the slope of a cliff, with a tiger on either side, taking the time to admire a beautiful flower nearby. Life on this planet is a lot like that.
Public attitudes, ethics and governmental policies usually lag technological breakthroughs. Except science fiction, there’s no way you can arrive at ethical frameworks and public policies about something that doesn’t exist yet.
Humanity though has found ways to deal with technological breakthroughs once they have been made. We have a range of options: from code of ethics, to trade restrictions, to laws and regulations, to international treaties to deal with the consequences of technology. They don’t work perfectly, but humanity has arguably not lost control. Whether it is artificial intelligence or gene editing, there is no reason to believe that we have suddenly lost the ability to control our creations; or indeed, lost the instinct for self-preservation.
A responsible realist approach to gene editing would be to ensure that we do not place hurdles on the positive uses of technology in order to satisfy our collective fear, uncertainty and doubt (FUD). Affordable gene editing has immense promise for the flourishing of the human species: from producing inexpensive food, to addressing climate change, to treating debilitating diseases.
Of course, we would have preferred a slower, more deliberate pace at which genes, especially human genes, would be edited. Yet scientific research and innovation is a prisoner’s dilemma: there are massive incentives and rewards to be the first, to be at the leading edge. Whatever we might prefer, we can’t wish this away.
It is in India’s national interest, therefore, to ensure that our society and our people are not left out. We saw how playing “nice” in the nuclear disarmament negotiations of the 1960s left us out of the nuclear “haves” merely because we didn’t test our weapons before an arbitrary date. After that experience, it would be foolhardy and irresponsible for any Indian government to accede to international technology moratoriums.
It is crucial for India to be at the forefront of the gene-editing revolution in biology. We must have access to intellectual property, we must own essential patents, and the people of India must have access to the procedures and treatments that are made possible by gene editing. We must not let the international outrage over human gene editing constrain our ability to benefit from it in any manner whatsoever.
There are already strong lobbies that are against genetically-modified crops. They will be joined by well-funded new ones protesting human gene editing. Vested interests will use the shoulders of responsible scientists and intellectuals to try to get countries to ban gene-editing applications. India’s political leaders and policymakers must find the nerve to resist being painted into a corner by them. We should not lock ourselves out of a domain that promises to address some of our biggest developmental challenges: agriculture, food security, nutrition, healthcare and environment, and not the least, economic growth, prosperity and defence.
There will now be a wider, vigorous global debate on the future of gene editing. It won’t be long before the world’s governments initiate multilateral negotiations and attempt an international treaty. We must develop our own thinking on matters of ethics, controls and regulation ahead of that. Let’s not get bowled over by the global outrage.
Nitin Pai is director of the Takshashila Institution, an independent centre for research and education in public policy.