November BWC Review Conference Tackles Major Biosecurity Developments like Gene Drives

States Parties to the Biological and Toxin Weapons Convention (BWC) are
meeting this month for the treaty’s
Eighth Review Conference.
In a new analysis, Gabrielle Tarini and Raymond A. Zilinskas of the James
Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies (CNS), call on the BWC to form a science
advisory body to address security issues emerging from major developments in
biological science, in particular gene drive systems.

Gene drive systems “drive” genes over
successive generations through populations of organisms that, unlike bacteria
and viruses, undergo sexual reproduction. Until recently, it was difficult for
scientists to engineer a gene drive in laboratories because the available
techniques were cumbersome. The situation dramatically changed in 2009 when a
widely applicable genome editing technique named CRISPR-Cas9 was developed. 

An example of the benefit of gene drives is that they can be designed so that female mosquitoes express infertility eventually reducing the spread of mosquito-borne pathogens such as those that cause Zika, malaria, dengue, and yellow fever. However, this ability to rapidly alter wild populations could also be misused, which poses novel security risks for entomological warfare, agro-sabotage, and ecocide. The authors offer a case study of how scientists could use synthetic engineering to change the eye color of subsequent generations of mosquitoes. 

There has yet to be a security
risk assessment done for the misuse of gene drive technology. Tarini and
Zilinskas suggest that the BWC is the appropriate forum to do so, and recommend
that participants at the BWC Review Conference consider establishing a science
advisory body to help the BWC continue to function effectively and promptly
assess advancements biosciences, like these gene drives.

Click here to read the article and view the case study.

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