National Security Implications of Gene Editing

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March 29, 2019 | Originally published by Date Line: March 29 on

It’s always terrifying to receive a phone call from Dr. James Giordano.

Not that he is a scary person, but he talks about scary things: specifically national security threats that are in the near future, but few people are thinking about.

Giordano, a Georgetown professor of neurology and biochemistry, and chief of the neuroethics studies program of the Pellegrino Center for Clinical Bioethics, is not an expert on geopolitics and doesn’t talk about nuclear weapons, large-scale cyberattacks, the Middle East and Russian aggression — the potential problems we all know about. But rather he casts his eye on the world of biotechnology, looks at the art of the possible, and then thinks a great deal on what they might mean for the future of warfare. He is also an advisory fellow to the Joint Chiefs of Staff.

Weaponizing biotech is scary stuff and it’s all the more concerning because many of the scenarios he speaks of — once the purview of science fiction writers — seem to grow closer every day.

Readers of this column might remember Giordano as one of three experts interviewed in these pages on the mysterious directed energy attacks that have taken place in Havana against members of the U.S. intelligence community and Canadian diplomats. The victims reported odd sensations in their ears, were later examined, and found to have some neurological damage.

The trauma was recently explained away in a handful of media outlets as a combination of “crickets” and “mass hysteria.” More on that later.

Giordano recently called to discuss another incident that made headlines: a Chinese doctor who used gene-editing technology to alter the DNA of human fetuses.

He Jiankui announced in November that he had edited the genes of two twin babies that were born resistant to HIV. His statements were not independently confirmed. The technology, called CRISPR-Cas9, makes it possible to operate on DNA to supply a needed gene or disable problematic ones. 

There are three questions to be considered in this case, Giordano said. One is whether he actually pulled off the feat as he claimed. The second involves ethics: should he have done it? And the third is the context: how and why did this take place?

The third question is something the national security community should pay attention to, he said.