Gene-editing, security, and uncertainty

Gene-editing, security, and uncertainty

CRISPR-Cas9, a gene-editing technology that consists of a single-cell immune system that allows for insertion and deletion of DNA, poses risks to U.S. and international security.

Virtually anyone can buy a CRISPR-Cas9 kit; most are sold online for less than a hundred dollars. The plasmids that come with the kits are generally benign substances like yeast and various plants that pose a very small risk to kit users. As CRISPR-Cas9 has grown in commercial and scientific applications, policymakers and security officials are increasingly concerned about how this gene-editing technology might be used by individuals and states for both research and to cause harm.

Due to the growing pervasiveness of CRISPR, the former Director of National Intelligence, James Clapper, declared gene-editing technologies a WMD threat in the 2016 World Wide Threat Assessment. Dan Coats also named gene-editing as a major threat to U.S. and international security in the 2017 version of the Assessment. Though Clapper and Coats (in the 2016 and 2017 assessments, respectively) did not name CRISPR-Cas9 specifically, the recognition of gene-editing more broadly reflects an increasing anxiety among the American security and policy communities regarding the implications of gene-editing technologies on U.S. and international security.

Likely medical advancements

U.S. policymakers’ fears are understandable, as CRISPR-Cas9 is inexpensive and has sped up the process of manipulating genetic material from earlier techniques such as polymerase chain reactions. However, it is not the technology that policymakers should examine, but the high barrier to knowledge that is required for an individual to use this technology in a sophisticated way. Due to the high barrier to knowledge, CRISPR-Cas9 is an unlikely tool for a terrorist group or rogue individuals to use in an attack, however this, does not preclude trained scientists or states from using it for malicious purposes.

Highly trained scientists and medical professionals primarily use CRISPR-Cas9 to research new treatments for various diseases and genetic abnormalities. Scientists at the University of California at San Diego successfully used it on rats to alter the color of their fur, contributing to knowledge that will allow scientists to begin altering phenotypes in mammals. CRISPR-Cas9’s other applications continually contribute to alternative forms of medical treatment for patients who have run out of options. Chinese physicians recently used CRISPR to modify T-cells to treat a patient with esophageal cancer after radiation and chemotherapy had failed to prevent the cancer’s spread.

The Chinese government is investing heavily in biotechnology for medical research, however, there is speculation that China is also repurposing their investments in CRISPR-Cas9 to engineer “super soldiers”. These genetically modified individuals would be able to fight for longer periods on the battlefield, as genetic modifications would decrease the need for sleep and improve physical strength and endurance.

Threat of biological weapons

The possibility of creating super soldiers using CRISPR-Cas9, however, is overstated.  Manipulating a section of genetic material is challenging and will likely require years of experimentation to create modifications in humans that result in enhanced physical endurance or decreased healing times. Moreover, we also do not know how modifying the human genome to alter basic functions, such as sleep and movement, could affect other aspects of the human body.

CRISPR-Cas9, however, poses a more immediate WMD threat than that of super soldiers. If the Chinese (or other U.S. adversaries) harness CRISPR-Cas9 for medical purposes, it is possible that the Chinese would be capable of creating biological weapons for use against adversaries. Countries may also be interested in gene editing to create biological weapons as CRISPR-Cas9 is relatively low-cost and research into genetically-modified bioweapons is relatively easy to conceal. The use of a genetically-modified bioweapon against the United States or U.S. ally would be catastrophic, as public health authorities would have to quickly identify a new pathogen, create a vaccine, and quickly implement public health measures to defend against a genetically-modified pathogen with unknown effects.

Promising… but is it revolutionary?

Without a doubt, CRISPR-Cas9 is a promising area for biotechnology research and poses a severe WMD threat. It allows scientists to manipulate DNA with increasing ease that was not previously available to them through other techniques. However, CRISPR-Cas9’s “revolutionary” nature is overstated. Though it makes gene editing easier to accomplish in a shorter period of time, the barrier to knowledge remains high leaving the most sophisticated uses of CRISPR-Cas9 to states and scientists.

Though CRISPR-Cas9 is easy to access and makes pathogen manipulation easier, using CRISPR-Cas9 to transform pathogens into deadly weapons will take time. States that intend to create biological weapons programs are the most likely users of CRISPR-Cas9, however, weaponizing a pathogen continues to be challenging. The likelihood of a state developing an army of super soldiers is extremely low for the foreseeable future, thus the threat that CRISPR-Cas9 poses for human modification is minimal.

Due to CRISPR-Cas9’s evolving nature, the U.S. security and policy communities should remain vigilant for changes in CRISPR-Cas9’s applications and the state of academic knowledge. The U.S. intelligence and military communities should also continue collecting intelligence on how other countries, particularly adversaries like China, Russia, and Iran, are using (or might use) CRISPR-Cas9 and whether they could use CRISPR-Cas9 to weaponize pathogens into deadly biological weapons. The biggest immediate challenge will be constructing regulatory frameworks for governing CRISPR-Cas9’s use in scientific research and mitigating the potential risks of states developing biological weapons programs.

About Author

Hali Czosnek

Hali Czosnek is a graduate student at Georgetown University pursuing a Masters in Security Studies. She currently works as a research assistant for Professor Elizabeth Saunders researching U.S. foreign policy and the use of force. In August 2017, Hali graduated summa cum laude with honours from the College of William and Mary. Her personal research interests include global health, biological weapons, and dual-use technologies.