Proposed U.N. Test Ban on Gene Drives Is Idiotic

The good news is that anti-technology activists are unlikely to succeed in imposing a global moratorium.


Suphatphong Koetnamsai/Dreamstime

A draft resolution would revise the U.N. Convention on Biological Diversity to call on governments to "refrain from" releasing organisms containing engineered gene drives, according to the MIT Technology Review. A gene drive is a technology that can rapidly propagate a particular set of genes throughout a population, including genes that cause sterility in a species.

Earlier this year, researchers at Imperial College London reported doing just that in malaria-carrying mosquito species. The genetic construct engineered into the mosquitoes caused female mosquitoes to become sterile. Passed along by engineered male mosquitoes, lab-grown populations went extinct after seven to 11 generations. Crashing populations of malaria-carrying mosquitoes in the wild could annually save half a million lives and spare hundreds of millions from the misery of this disease.

The proposed ban is supported by some of the more radical anti-science activist groups. For example, the luddite ETC Group (along with Friends of the Earth) have launched a petition that calls "for a global moratorium on any release of engineered gene drives. This moratorium is necessary to affirm the precautionary principle,* which is enshrined in international law, and to protect life on Earth as well as our food supply."

To counter this nonsense, gene drive researchers have issued an open letter that strongly pushes back against the proposed ban, which would apply even to experiments:

Closing the door on research by creating arbitrary barriers, high uncertainty, and open-ended delays will significantly limit our ability to provide answers to the questions policy-makers, regulators and the public are asking. The moratorium suggested…would prevent the full evaluation of the potential uses of gene drive. Instead, the feasibility and modalities of any field evaluation should be assessed on a case-by-case basis….

Member States can enable the Convention on Biological Diversity to be a platform for knowledge and experience sharing. We should not decide against the use of a tool before potential costs and benefits can be fully evaluated. We urge governments to ensure the decisions taken at the Convention on Biological Diversity's next meeting do not amount to a moratorium on gene drive research, but instead offer a balanced and constructive way forward for Parties to learn and monitor this field of research.

The good news is that since decisions require consensus, negotiators are unlikely to approve the ban, since some countries with biotech industries are expected to oppose the measure.

(*The precautionary principle is the idea that we should never do anything for the first time.)

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  1. Why are we becoming afraid of almost everything?

    1. The thing that baffles me is the group of people who think individuals should be forcibly vaccinated or vaccinated by mandate because of marginal risk, herd immunity, and some mysterious hypothetical combination of ebola, H1N1, and Polio are so cavalier about a technology that, in theory, spreads endogenously and drives entire populations to extinction in a few generations.

    2. My only concern with these gene drives is unintended consequences. Here comes a totally speculative set of musings.

      What could possibly be an unintended consequence of removing mosquitoes from an ecosystem? They don’t seem to be a keystone species or the main diet of another species. For example, while bats eat a lot of mosquitoes, they don’t rely on them and easily snack on other pests. But what about removing a major driving force of evolution? Over 30% of our DNA comes from viruses. It is now becoming recognized that endogenous retroviruses are a major driving force in evolution. Removing mosquitoes seems like it would remove a major pathway that viruses use to spread through an ecosystem. Over long timescales, this might reduce the adaptability of the ecosystem as a whole, but reducing the flow of viral DNA. Mosquitoes first appeared in the Cretaceous. What if they had an as yet unappreciated impact on the diversification of mammals?

      1. Mosquito larvae are one of the base prey creatures of the freshwater aquatic food chain. A great deal of fish stocks are dependent on them.

      2. Localities have exterminated mosquitoes with DDT with no obvious harm from the lack of mosquitoes.

        Mosquitoes have also been introduced by people as they travel and modify the environment.

        So… I think they are one species that is “safe” to exterminate.

  2. The downside of the mosquito gene drive is that it will arrest the Darwinian extinction of GM Luddites whose idea of tropical disease control is organic citronella candles .

    1. I doubt the GM Luddites live in areas where they have to worry about malaria-carrying mosquitoes.

      1. Except when they go to eco-resorts in Thailand or Botswana

        1. Where were you when yellow fever hit Philadephia,

          There’s West Nile in New York , Equine Encephalitis everywhere from Boston to Baltimore and Zika galore in Florida

          1. If you ask the progressives, those cases were a result of global warming changing our natural protections against diseases by making it possible for mosquitoes to live where they never lived before.

        2. Where they use DDT soaked bed nets.

  3. The UN is generally an idiotic self-serving club for technophobic Marxists.

    1. They need member countries to hold off on releasing GMO organisms until they’ve finished their work on genetic gene drives with little blue helmets that don’t do anything.

  4. A draft resolution would revise the U.N. Convention on Biological Diversity to call on governments to “refrain from” releasing organisms containing engineered gene drives, according to the MIT Technology Review.

    I’m no fan of the UN, but this is a good thing, right?

    Governments releasing genetically engineered organisms is a form of biological warfare, no?

      1. Seriously, am I wrong?

        If Monsanto develops a gene drive to eradicate ragweed or white grubs/japanese beetles or whatever, they aren’t subject to UN resolution. The only people intrinsically bound by UN resolution are signatory member nations, right?

        I suppose the devil is in the details of the resolution but if N. Korea, or whomever, ‘released’ a biological organism designed to decimate the regional population of some natural resource, it’s arguably an act of war.

        Not that the UN could really do anything about it or to prevent it, but acting like it’s a bad thing a priori and that member nations should be opposed to such action isn’t intrinsically a bad thing or exactly anti-libertarian on principle.

    1. Well, not this particular application perhaps, but it could certainly be adopted for biological warfare. What if this was adapted into a pollinator species? One country could severely impact another country’s food production.

      1. What if this was adapted into a pollinator species? One country could severely impact another country’s food production.

        My understanding of gene drive technology is that it, theoretically, makes all future progeny of any given species carriers of any given genes or proteins. You wouldn’t even have to eliminate the species. You could convert another nation’s required resource into a hazard thus forcing them to eliminated it.

    2. I guess it technically is. But not much more so than the sterile insect technique. In fact, it’s basically a ramped up version of this.

      That said, I’ve no doubt it could be used for much more nefarious purposes.

  5. Well, everybody was fine with banning DDT so that malaria could continue to kill African children by the thousands, why not ban ALL efforts at saving black children?
    I mean, saving the anopheles mosquito may not be a visually hip as the eagles, but what the hell – – – – – –

  6. re alt-text: way to other oppressed mosquito’s of color, Bailey.

    1. It’s German.

  7. Someone will develop this technology, NK, China, whoever. We need to understand it through research.

    1. Again, this was the UN basically asking/telling its member states not to release them at large (as policy?).

      Research has not been banned. Labs have not been shut down. Talks have not been interrupted. Maybe some edgier business models have to be rewritten. Maybe.

  8. Hey, it’s only Africans dieing, right? A reasonable price to ‘affirm the precautionary principle.’

    Notice that they don’t bother claim that the precautionary principle serves humanity – they say explicitly that humanity must serve the principle. Where have you heard that attitude before? Ah, the siren song of totalitarianism.

  9. If a lab tech were to accidentally drop a crate of these mosquitoes… who would know?

    1. Courier service and shift supervisors. Local authorities. Shipping clerks at both ends. Production and stocking managers above them. Depending on the size of the crate and the number of mosquitoes lost, the C-level executives and/or the board. The mosquitos/eggs themselves are rather valuable and the scientists producing them don’t blindly ignore the precautionary principle 100% of the time. Better safe than sorry is sometimes true.

      Do you think they just swipe a couple dozen mosquitoes out of the air with a ball jar and put it in the delivery basket of little Timmy’s bicycle and send him off to the post office?

  10. Good thing nobody has to listen to the UN.

    Or does.

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