Bioethics Blogs

The Disappointing NAS Gene Drive Report

On June 8, the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine issued a report about gene drives, titled:

Gene Drives on the Horizon: Advancing Science, Navigating Uncertainty, and Aligning Research with Public Values

The headline of the associated press release summed it up succinctly:

Gene-Drive Modified Organisms Are Not Ready to Be Released Into Environment; New Report Calls for More Research and Robust Assessment

Francis Collins, director of the National Institutes of Health, commended the authors for a “thoughtful and comprehensive review of the unprecedented potential and challenge of gene drive technologies.” That’s true enough. It is a valuable resource for a much-needed public debate — but it is sadly incomplete, and occasionally misleading. 

The report’s skepticism about “reversal drives” is welcome (see Recommendation 5-5, p. 99) but inadequate. If gene drive technology goes wrong, is the solution really to be more gene drive? Indeed, Kevin Esvelt, one of the pioneers of (and an advocate for) gene drive told the New York Times that the report failed to adequately flag its central risk. 

“They assume you can safely run a contained field trial,” he said. “But anytime you release an organism with a gene drive system into the wild you must assume there is a significant chance that it will spread — globally — and factor that in.”

The report makes repeatedly admits that field research is most likely to occur in “low- and middle-income countries” (p. 6 etc), recognizes “that many countries lack the capacity to develop a comprehensive regulatory scheme for gene drives from scratch” (p. 8), and the like. These should be warning flags. If technology really can help underdeveloped nations, the impetus should come from them.

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.