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Biotechnology and health

United Nations considers a test ban on evolution-warping gene drives

Debate over a new idea for stopping malaria is pitting some environmental groups against Bill Gates.
November 13, 2018
Tom Ervin | Getty Images

The billionaire Bill Gates wants to end malaria, and so he’s particularly “energized” about gene drives, a technology that could wipe out the mosquitoes that spread the disease.

Gates calls the new approach a “breakthrough,” but some environmental groups say gene drives are too dangerous to ever use.

Now the sides are headed for a showdown.

In a letter circulated today, scientists funded by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and others are raising the alarm over what they say is an attempt to use a United Nations biodiversity meeting this week in Sharm El-Sheikh, Egypt, to introduce a global ban on field tests of the technology.

At issue is a draft resolution by diplomats updating the UN Convention on Biological Diversity, which—if adopted—would call on governments to “refrain from” any release of organisms containing engineered gene drives, even as part of experiments.

The proposal for a global gene-drive moratorium has been pushed by environmental groups that are also opposed to genetically modified soybeans and corn. They have likened the gene-drive technique to the atom bomb.

In response, the Gates Foundation, based in Seattle, has been funding a counter-campaign, hiring public relations agencies to preempt restrictive legislation and to distribute today’s letter. Many of its signatories are directly funded by the foundation.

“This is a lobbying game on both sides, to put it bluntly,” says Todd Kuiken, who studies gene-drive policy at North Carolina State University. (He says he was asked to sign the Gates letter but declined because he is a technical advisor to the UN.)

New technology

The gene-drive technique involves modifying a mosquito’s DNA so that, when the insect breeds, it spreads a specific genetic change—one that’s bad for its survival.

This year, a team at Imperial College in London showed it could wipe out a population of mosquitoes in a lab setting. Released in the wild, a gene drive could potentially eliminate malaria-carrying mosquitoes, stopping transmission of the disease.

The Imperial College group, which calls itself Target Malaria, has been funded with more than $75 million from the Gates Foundation and has been laying plans to eventually deploy a gene drive in tropical Africa.

The language being considered by the UN would amount to a “moratorium” on the technology, says Austin Burt, the theoretical biologist who heads Target Malaria, and who signed the letter. It warns the diplomats against “creating arbitrary barriers, high uncertainty, and open-ended delays” that would impede more research.

Dueling concerns

While gene-drive technology holds promise, environmental groups such as Friends of the Earth and the ETC Group have stoked fears that the technology could go haywire, perhaps running out of control or disturbing the food web.

And Gates has unintentionally added to the concerns by exaggerating how soon a gene drive might be ready. “I would deploy it two years from now,” he said in 2016 during a Forbes conference, for instance. “I have to always show respect for people who thinks it’s a scary thing to do. I don’t think so.”

Contrary to Gates’s time line, which he later amended to “several years,” gene-drive technology remains highly experimental. Scientists aren’t sure how well it would work in the wild and don’t even have insects they consider ready for field tests.

Gates “wants us to go as fast as we can,” says Burt, but he says a release is not imminent. “We figure we are five to six years from having a dossier to submit to a regulatory body to release this,” he says. “If people think we are going to be out there in two years, that could be alarming. When they see that we are not, they could relax.”

Precautionary principle

According to Kuiken, the UN is unlikely to endorse a ban, because that requires consensus, and some countries with biotech industries are expected to oppose the measure.

But the UN, which takes what’s called a “precautionary” approach to new technologies, has previously adopted restrictive language on some technologies seen as affecting the planet as a whole, including certain biotech seeds and geoengineering techniques.  

In Egypt, gene drives “are going to be a big fight for sure,” says Jim Thomas, co-executive director of the ETC Group, a nonprofit that is critical of genetic engineering. Thomas is circulating a separate letter calling for a “global moratorium” on gene-drive tests. Signatories include Slow Food Deutschland, Dr. Bronner’s soap company, Friends of the Earth, and the Sierra Club.

Thomas says his group will argue that the rights of indigenous groups could be run “roughshod” by “a genetic construct that moves beyond political barriers.” He has sought support for a moratorium from organic-food proponents.

It’s the ability of a gene drive to spread on its own in the wild that accounts for both the technology’s promise and its peril. Scientists already take elaborate precautions against accidental release of gene-drive mosquitoes from their labs.

Burt says for now the biggest unknown is whether the technology will work at all. “The risk we are trying to deal with is that it doesn’t work, that it falls over when we release it, or resistance develops very quickly,” he says.

That means both opponents and supporters of gene drives may be overestimating how soon one could be ready.

“The member states are hearing and thinking that these are sitting in the lab ready to be released, and that is not the case,” says Kuiken. “Nothing I have seen suggested these things are literally ready to go out the door tomorrow. We could have better decisions if everyone knew they could take a breath.”

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