US intelligence chief calls gene editing a 'weapon of mass destruction'

James ClapperEvy Mages/Getty ImagesDirector of National Intelligence James Clapper.

The United States’ top intelligence official just added gene editing technology to a list of threats that includes North Korea’s nukes and Syria’s chemical weapons, MIT’s Technology Review reported.

Director of National Intelligence James Clapper testified before the Senate Armed Services Committee on Tuesday about 2016’s US Intelligence Community’s Worldwide Threat Assessment.

Genome editing is a technology used to cut and paste DNA inside living cells.

In recent years, a technique known as CRISPR has been widely adopted because it is far easier and more precise than previous methods.

It has been touted for its potential to cure or eradicate diseases and modify crops, but critics worry it could lead to the creation of designer babies or rogue organisms.

A ‘weapon of mass destruction’

The assessment includes a rundown of what the intelligence community thinks are the major threats facing the world.

The report included genome editing in a list of “weapons of mass destruction and proliferation,” along with threats like North Korea’s nuclear weapons, China’s nuclear capabilities, and Syria’s chemical weapons.

“Research in genome editing conducted by countries with different regulatory or ethical standards than those of Western countries probably increases the risk of the creation of potentially harmful biological agents or products,” the report reads.

“Given the broad distribution, low cost, and accelerated pace of development of this dual-use technology, its deliberate or unintentional misuse might lead to far-reaching economic and national security implications.”

Specifically, the report drew attention to experiments to modify human reproductive cells — changes that can be inherited.

In fact, Chinese scientists have already used CRISPR to modify human embryos, spurring an international ethical debate. And just last week, British scientists got approval to use gene editing in humans to study how embryos develop.

Piers Millet, a biological weapons expert at the Woodrow Wilson Center in Washington, DC, told Tech Review he was surprised that gene editing made the WMD list, because making a bioweapon requires knowledge of a “wide raft of technologies.”

Aside from WMDs, the report also singled out cybersecurity, terrorism, space and counterspace, counterintelligence, transnational organised crime, economics and natural resources, and human security.

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