United Nations considers a test ban on evolution-warping gene drives - MIT Technology Review
he 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.
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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.)
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.”