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Gene technology and Dual Use Research of Concern (DURC)

Gene technology and dual use research of concern (DURC)
PROFESSOR RAINA MACINTYRE: Let’s talk a bit about genetic engineering. Some of you may have seen the movie Gattica, in which there is a perfect society of genetically engineered human beings and an underclass of human beings who are born naturally. And in that movie, it raises a lot of questions about genetic engineering of human beings. And this was a movie that’s nearly 20 years old. And at the time it may have seemed completely unrealistic, but, in fact, this is reality. This is current reality. We have the technology today to create a society like that movie. And one of those tools that’s been available, really, only for the last three years is CRISPR-Cas9.
It’s basically a genetic editing tool, like a very fine pair of genetic scissors that can remove undesirable genetic traits and insert desirable traits and edit genomes of anything. In fact, we are already seeing experiments on genetic engineering of healthy human embryos in Sweden. The technology’s now available to edit human beings, to edit animals, to edit viruses, to edit plants. We can actually bypass Mendelian inheritance altogether. You may have learned in high school that your hair colour or your eye colour can be predictably transmitted down to your children with a mathematical certainty as to what percentage chance they have of inheriting your eye colour or hair colour. Well, this just isn’t the case anymore.
This technology of genetic engineering allows us to completely bypass Mendelian inheritance and actually insert characteristics that become heritable. So this is a very radical change in the landscape. The Director of National Intelligence in the United States called CRISPER-Cas9 a weapon of mass destruction in 2016, because, I suspect, he could see the potential for mass harm to human beings through this tool. In fact, it has been a very hot topic. The European Union, the United States have all been looking at this kind of scientific research on viruses and bacteria to try to assess the risk and the benefit. And this report came out of the United States at the end of 2015.
It’s very nonconclusive, but go and have a look for yourself. What is dual use research of concern? It’s research that’s intended to benefit humankind, but can also result in harm. And the harm can occur by two mechanisms, one, by lab accident, and two, by deliberate release, or bioterrorism. It’s been controversial since 2011 when scientists sought to publish methods for engineering of an avian influenza virus to make it contagious in humans, so to take a virus that’s not normally contagious between humans, a deadly virus and make it contagious. There’s two types of dual use research. One is synthetic genomics, which is creating a virus from scratch in a laboratory. And this has been going on since 2002.
There are multiple private companies around the world that do synthetic genomics. They are guided by principles of voluntary screening of orders for suspicious sequences. They’re meant to report anything that’s sounds suspicious. But there is no regulation of this industry. And then, there’s genetic modification of pathogens, which is what I just talked about with the avian influenza. And it’s been documented since the Soviet bioweapons programme. But the H5N1 avian flu controversy is really what brought this to a four. Now, H5N1 is bird flu. It’s not human flu. It’s highly pathogenic in the birds. And it emerged in 1997. And it’s been endemic in the world.
There’s been over 900 cases worldwide, mostly in Indonesia and more recently a huge surge of cases in Egypt. It is not transmissible from human to human. But humans have become infected and most of these have had very close contact with sick or dead birds. And this is what stopped pandemic fears and global pandemic planning since 2005. So these two groups or to publish them methods for engineering H5N1 to make it transmittable. In December 2011, to May 2012 there was a voluntary moratorium on this kind of research. But the scientific community was really divided. One side said this is censorship of science and science should be free to examine anything. And the other side said the risk is too great.
There’s a risk of either a lab accident or bioterrorism. But in 2012, the publications were allowed. The gates were open. The horses have bolted. In 2014, however, there was a renewed moratorium on funding of this kind of research in the United States. They commissioned the Gryphon Report, which came out. But the jury is still out. This is still a very contentious issue.
In this video, Professor Raina MacIntyre talks about Gene technology and dual use research of concern (DURC). The definition of DURC is explored, its recent emergency as a systemic and important risk to society and populations. Finally the nature of the risks posed by DURC are highlighted.
After watching this video, discuss the answer to the following questions in the comments section below:
What mechanisms are currently employed to control dual use technologies of any kind (not just biological DURC) in society?
How easy do you think it will be to achieve the same kind of controls in biological DURC technologies?
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Biosecurity and Bioterrorism: Public Health Dimensions

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