Bioethics Blogs

Deliberating Over Ending Two Species When We Are Bringing Tens of Thousands to the Brink of Extinction

by Craig Klugman, Ph.D.

One of the first news articles I ever wrote in journalism was as an intern at Stanford Magazine. This piece was on research into a human vaccine that would do nothing for us, but would kill any mosquito who happened to bite an inoculated person. The researcher’s ethical question at the time was whether anyone would consent to getting a vaccine that does nothing for her or his personal health.

Twenty-five years later, and this month Smithsonian Magazine published an article on CRISPR-9 gene-editing techniques that will allow for the eradication of mosquitoes.  A group of scientists introduced a mutation into female mosquitoes that caused infertility—the mutation spread to 75 percent of that specific mosquito specie’s population. This possibility raises the question of whether such a mutation should be released that has as its goal, the elimination of an entire species.

The same question has been raised by the WHO which is debating whether the remaining samples of the smallpox virus should be destroyed. The only two sources (that we know of) are at the CDC in Atlanta and the State Research Center of Virology and Biotechnology in Russia. For many years, the argument in favor of keeping it around was in case we needed to create a vaccine. But such vaccines can now be made without the virus. One fear is that if someone got a hold of the remaining stock, that a bio-terrorism weapon could be created. The other fear is whether humans should deliberately eradicate any species.

In the 1950s we began a program to eradicate the screwworm (a bane to ranchers) by sterilizing the males of the species using radiation, a process that has taken decades and has not quite led to the extinction of the species.

The views, opinions and positions expressed by these authors and blogs are theirs and do not necessarily represent that of the Bioethics Research Library and Kennedy Institute of Ethics or Georgetown University.