March 1, 2024

Existential risk #2: gene editing a potential WMD?

Here’s what a few bioethicists have to say.


In February this year, the US Director of Intelligence James R. Clapper named gene-editing technology as “a potential weapon of mass destruction”. Clapper told US Congress that rouge states might use gene-editing techniques to manufacture biological weapons. 

“In countries with different regulatory or ethical standards, it increases the risk of the creation of potentially harmful biological agents”.

The remarks sparked discussion among bioethicists about the possibility of misuse of gene-editing techniques. Here’s what a few had to say.

University of California San Francisco bioethics professor Barbara Koenig:

“Those individuals who don’t follow the rules would essentially be ostracized. But I understand how you could be concerned that self-regulation is enough.”

Columbia University bioethicist Robert Klitzman:

“I think that this is a very powerful technology…I think as a result that there are things that need to be done that have not yet been talked about.”

“The infectious agent responsible for bubonic plague, if altered through Crispr, could potentially be used as a WMD. Currently, we have effective treatment against it. But if it were altered, it could potentially become resistant to these treatments and thus be deadly.”

Edinburgh University bioethicist Sarah Chan told The Guardian technology that could make diseases more infectious and dangerous has existed for decades, as have the questions around it.

“Some of the fears and concerns surrounding genome editing technology are, if not overblown, perhaps misdirected.”

Piers Millet, an expert on bioweapons at the Woodrow Wilson Center in Washington, D.C., said Clapper’s singling out of gene editing on the WMD list was “a surprise,” since making a bioweapon—say, an extra-virulent form of anthrax—still requires mastery of a “wide raft of technologies.”

Existential risk #2: gene editing a potential WMD?
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