It is too late to regulate gene editing

The scientific community is shocked and outraged this week over the announcement that a Chinese doctor has gene edited two children to make them more resistant to HIV. Much of the scientific community believes that we are still decades away from being able to safely and accurately edit the genetics of embryos, that there are ethical questions that need to be answered first and that effective international regulations need to be put in place. All of that sounds nice, but it’s too late.

Even if all the ethical questions were answered, and a scientific consensus had been reached, the world is in no mood for international regulation, and has never done a good job of creating and sticking to such agreements. The Paris Climate Accords took 10 years to negotiate, are non-binding and are already in danger of falling apart. The World Trade Organization agreements are violated so frequently that the future of the organization is in doubt. Treaties covering chemical weapons, human rights and nuclear non-proliferation have been routinely violated when they become inconvenient.

In the case of genetic modification, the scientific community may shun people who “go rouge” but He Jiankui won’t be the last. Whatever their colleagues and peers may think of the practice, scientists will face an incredible demand from consumers, from parents and from governments to try, whether the technology is ready or not and whether the scientific community approves or not many will give in to the pressure and temptation.

It is possible, and even likely, that the technology will be regulated in the United States and Europe but a global set of rules that everyone will abide by is unlikely to happen in the foreseeable future. However, even in an ideal situation, where every government, military, private corporation, and laboratory in the world agrees to a set of rules, and does their best to abide by them without any clandestine work by anyone, you can buy a DIY CRISPR gene editing kit on Amazon for less than $200. Unlike nuclear weapons, for example, just about anyone with the right knowledge could set up a lab in a basement or garage and give gene editing a shot.

Scientists and others are free to have ethical conversations and push for guidelines, but they also need to recognize that the CRISPR genie is out of the bottle and have some conversations about that. What are the possible pitfalls of widespread “rogue” gene editing, how will we spot dangers if they arise and how should we respond when it happens?

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