Written by Aaron Roberts, Institute on Ethics and Policy for Innovation at McMaster University

Over the past few years, one of the most frequent worries raised about gene drive research has been that existing guidance is ill-prepared to responsibly address novel technical aspects on the research process and potential deployment of synthetic gene drive mechanisms. This concern has led some to call for a moratorium on gene drive research.

In light of this worry, it is most encouraging each time another group of trusted experts and researchers releases a statement concluding that gene drive research ought to proceed. It is even more encouraging when, along with these statements, they offer new guidance updated to account for and responsibly manage the novel challenges synthetic gene drive mechanisms introduce. Each contribution strengthens our collective library of resources, as well as aids in building and refining the international consensus on gene drive research governance.

In a recent blog post we drew attention to the fact that last month the World Health Organization (WHO) released its position paper on genetically modified mosquitoes for vector control, at the same time launching its guidance on ethics & vector-borne diseases. The WHO position paper includes, as the first of its two final statements, the following:

“[Vector-borne diseases (VBDs)] cause substantial mortality and morbidity and impose an economic burden globally. WHO recognizes the urgency of developing and testing new tools to combat VBDs and supports investigation of all potential new control technologies, including [genetically modified mosquitoes].”

This statement comes in advance of an update to the WHO’s 2014 Guidance framework for testing of genetically modified mosquitoes, on track to be launched in early 2021. The reviewed publication will address and provide updated guidance on the testing pathway for gene drive mosquitoes.

While WHO’s Guidance on ethics and vector-borne diseases does not limit its focus to gene drive research, portions of every section are pertinent to its responsible progress - particularly for gene drive applications for public health purposes. Much of the document echoes, refines, and incrementally builds upon what can be found in earlier reports and guidance documents. This is encouraging to see, as it demonstrates evidence of a developing consensus among experts regarding how best to responsibly approach gene drive research challenges. The document also reinforces the need for new tools to combat VBDs, in addition to the need for further research into their development.

A few years ago, the prospect of gene drive research proceeding in a context of guidance which inadequately accounted for characteristics unique to it was a reasonable worry. However, with each new position statement expounding the virtues of further research and taking a stance against a moratorium1,2,3,4 and each updated guidance document finding agreement and building a shared community of best practice5,6,7 the reasonability of the question whether to proceed with gene drive research recedes.

1 https://www.who.int/publications/i/item/9789240013155

2 https://academic.oup.com/aesa/advance-article/doi/10.1093/aesa/saaa029/5922408

3 https://royalsociety.org/~/media/policy/Publications/2018/08-11-18-gene-drive-statement.pdf

4 https://genedrivenetwork.org/resources/position-papers/32-position-paper-on-synthetic-biology/file

https://www.who.int/publications/i/item/ethics-and-vector-borne-diseases

6 http://www.ajtmh.org/content/journals/10.4269/ajtmh.18-0083

https://fnih.org/news/announcements/guiding-principles-for-sponsors-supporters-gene-drive-research