Usually good for a conspiracy theory or two, U.S. President Donald Trump has suggested that the virus causing COVID-19 was either intentionally engineered or resulted from a lab accident at the Wuhan Institute of Virology in China. Its release could conceivably have involved an accident, but the pathogen isn’t the mishmash of known viruses that one would expect from something designed in a lab, as a research report in Nature Medicine conclusively lays out. “If someone were seeking to engineer a new coronavirus as a pathogen, they would have constructed it from the backbone of a virus known to cause illness,” the researchers said.
But if genetic engineering wasn’t behind this pandemic, it could very well unleash the next one. With COVID-19 bringing Western economies to their knees, all the world’s dictators now know that pathogens can be as destructive as nuclear missiles. What’s even more worrying is that it no longer takes a sprawling government lab to engineer a virus. Thanks to a technological revolution in genetic engineering, all the tools needed to create a virus have become so cheap, simple, and readily available that any rogue scientist or college-age biohacker can use them, creating an even greater threat. Experiments that could once only have been carried out behind the protected walls of government and corporate labs can now practically be done on the kitchen table with equipment found on Amazon. Genetic engineering – with all its potential for good and bad – has become democratized.
To design a virus, a bio researcher’s first step is to obtain the genetic information of an existing pathogen – such as one of the coronaviruses that cause the common cold – which could then be altered to create something more dangerous. In the 1970s, the first genetic sequencing of a bacteriophage took weeks of effort and cost millions of dollars just to determine its 5,386 nucleotides, the building blocks of genetic information. Today, sequencing the 3,000,000,000 base pairs that make up the human genome, which dictates the construction and maintenance of a human being, can be done in a few hours for about $1000 in the United States. Xun Xu, the CEO of Chinese genomics research company BGI Group, told me by email that he expects to offer full human-genome sequencing in supermarkets and online for about $290 by the end of this year.
The next step in engineering a virus is to modify the genome of the existing pathogen to change its effects. One technology in particular makes it almost as easy to engineer life forms as it is to edit Microsoft Word documents. CRISPR gene editing, developed only a few years ago, deploys the same natural mechanism that bacteria use to trim pieces of genetic information from one genome and insert it into another. This mechanism, which bacteria developed over millennia to defend themselves from viruses, has been turned into a cheap, simple, and fast way to edit the DNA of any organism in the lab.
If experimenting with DNA once required years of experience, sophisticated labs, and millions of dollars, CRISPR has changed all that. To set up a CRISPR editing capability, the experimenter need only order a fragment of RNA and purchase off-the-shelf chemicals and enzymes, costing only a few dollars, on the Internet. Because it’s so cheap and easy to use, thousands of scientists all over the world are experimenting with CRISPR-based gene editing projects. Very little of this research is limited by regulations, largely because regulators don’t yet understand what has suddenly become possible.
China, with its emphasis on technological progress ahead of safety and ethics, has made the most astonishing breakthroughs. In 2014, Chinese scientists announced they had successfully produced monkeys that had been genetically modified at the embryonic stage. In April 2015, another group of researchers in China detailed the first ever-effort to edit the genes of a human embryo. While the attempt failed, it shocked the world: This wasn’t supposed to happen so soon.
In April 2016, yet another group of Chinese researchers reported having succeeded in modifying the genome of a human embryo in an effort to make it resistant to HIV infection, though the embryo was not brought to term. But then, in November 2018, Chinese researcher He Jiankui announced that he had created the first “CRISPR babies” – healthy infants whose genomes were edited before they were born. The People’s Daily gushed over the “historical breakthrough,” but after a global uproar, the Chinese authorities – who, He claims, had supported his efforts – arrested and later sentenced him to three years in prison for unethical conduct. But the Rubicon of biomedical science had been crossed.
China’s legion of rogue scientists is certainly a worry. But gene-editing technology has become so accessible that we could conceivably see teenagers experimenting with viruses. In the United States, anyone who wants to start modifying the genome in their garage can order a do-it-yourself CRISPR kit online for $169, for example. This comes with “everything you need to make precision genome edits in bacteria at home.” For $349, the same company is also offering a human engineering kit, which comes with embryonic kidney cells from a tissue culture originally taken from an aborted female human fetus. Shipment is advertised to take no longer than three days – no special couriers or ice packs needed.