Chinese scientist He Jiankui has rattled the international scientific community last week when he announced that he has made the world’s first genetically edited babies, while speaking at an international gene editing summit in Hong Kong. What He claimed he has managed to do is use gene editing technique CRISPR, which is a set of DNA sequences used to detect and destroy DNA from viruses, in order to immunize two infants against HIV.
Not only were He’s statements regarding the success of his experiment misleading, but he acted in blunt defiance of internationally accepted scientific norms and ethics. As comments from scientists and researchers from throughout the world regarding this highly disturbing incident overflow, it is important to reflect on He’s actions in order to figure out what exactly went wrong, and whether similar cases in the future can be prevented.
In his experiment, He tested couples going into in vitro treatment and in which one of the partners had AIDS. He claimed that through genetic editing he will attempt to inoculate the embryos against the virus. The case which he regarded a success was that of two twins named Nana and Lulu, whose dad was HIV positive. Focusing on a gene called CCR5, which is used by the HIV virus as a gateway to infiltrate into the body, He sought to remove cells from the embryos, deactivate the CCR5 using CRISPR, and then re-insert them into the body.
This technique has been previously used by scientists studying the cells of patients suffering from the disease in order to create a vaccine for HIV. Yet, neither Nana and Lulu were carriers of the virus, which means that He took perfectly healthy cells out of the infants’ bodies, altered them, and injected them back in. And so not only was He attempting to cure a nonexisting medical need, but by messing with the girl’s genetic makeup He increased their risk to contract a number of other diseases, such as the West Nile. It remains unknown what the long-term effects of He’s experiment will be for Nana and Lulu, as He’s desired outcome (creating a minor alteration in their CCR5 genes) did not pan out as planned, leaving the girl with a CCR5 mutation unseen previously by scientists.
Furthermore, He’s experiment was conducted in complete contravention of international scientific consensus. Both in 2015 and 2017, the U.S. National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine iterated that gene-editing of human embryos should not be executed hastily. In its 2015 release, the academies’ report stated that in the case of gene-editing, “there is a need for caution… rigorous oversight… maximum transparency,” as well as an “absence of reasonable alternatives.” The report finally concluded that much more research needs to be done before this technique is to be used on humans.
Alas, He didn’t adhere to any of these instructions and limitations. He did not inform The Southern University of Science and Technology, to which he belonged, about the experiment, and had lied about receiving the ethical approval of Shenzhen Harmonicare hospital. When He informed a few of his colleagues and fellow researchers about his intended experiment, the vast majority discouraged him from conducting it, claiming that such a step would be extremely unethical and irresponsible, particularly since the effect of CRISPR is still widely unknown to the scientific community and that extensive research must first be done on animals before it can be used to alter human genes. He ignored his colleagues’ pleas and went on to experiment with human beings.
Finally, He failed to properly inform his patients about what they were getting themselves into; presenting the research as an attempt to develop an HIV vaccine, He did not include in the consent form clear and understandable information about CRISPR and gene-editing, and instead drew up a contract that primarily removes any liability on his part should any unexpected or adverse side effects arise due to the experiment.
He’s whereabouts have been unknown for days, and it remains unclear whether he excused himself from the public eye or has been detained for his actions. Nevertheless, while the uproar about He’s experiment echoes throughout the international scientific community, there is no guarantee that such unscrupulous actions won’t repeat themselves in the future.
Presently, there is no international scientific body that monitors clinical trials and experiments. It is true that individual governments may get involved and crack down on wackos like He, but as seen in this case, they don’t have the resources to effectively defend the public from every scientist who decides to engage in unfavourable testing, especially since when it comes to science it becomes all the more difficult to determine where the line lies between innovative and unlawful.
Anti-vaxxers, also known as people who are opposed to vaccination, typically a parent who refuses to vaccinate their child, must be stopped. The anti-vaccination movement, which continues to grow, is a main source of worry for scientists who are sure vaccines work, but it should also be one for the rest of us. Measles (among other diseases) is on the rise once again, and reviews found that there is a correlation between the two problems. Here’s what is wrong with anti-vaxxers and what needs to be done.
The anti-vaccination movement comes from the idea that there’s a connection between vaccination and autism, as well as other brain disorders. This idea rests upon no scientific evidence, but as you’ve probably realised by now, the same can be said about many other beliefs in our increasingly disbelieving world.
Measles is a disease more contagious than Tuberculosis or Ebola, yet it is easily preventable with a vaccine that barely costs anything. When measles was declared to be eliminated in the U.S. in 2000, everyone thought—rightly so—that it was thanks to vaccines. And yet here we are, in 2019, with parents knowingly withholding their children from something that could save them from potential brain damage and death. According to the World Health Organization (WHO), in 2018 measles cases in the U.S. went up six-fold while they tripled across Europe.
The situation is so bad that even Trump, who only a year ago ‘flirted’ with notorious anti-vaxxers and repeatedly linked vaccinations to autism, declared that people “have to get their shots”. In other words, if even Trump takes these outbreaks seriously, this is not something to disregard. This entirely preventable emergency that started in March this year should be a lesson to everyone about how unfortunate a world without vaccines would be.
A few months after the outbreak, anti-vaxxers are still going strong, lowering herd immunity quickly. In the U.K., Prince Charles’ mission to save homeopathy is reenforcing the public’s distrust in medical science. How? By promoting homeopathy as a miracle remedy, one that hasn’t been provided by the NHS since 2017 and has been described by its chief executive Simon Stevens as “at best a placebo and a misuse of scarce NHS funds”.
The anti-vaccination movement comes exactly from the growing public distrust of vaccines, but also in science, in the government, and in the pharmaceutical industry more broadly. So what can we do, really, apart from making vaccines mandatory for everyone? Tackling fake news and misinformation, especially fake medical news on social media, would be a first step.
In March 2016, even Robert De Niro dabbled in this affair by promoting the anti-vaccination documentary Vaxxed: From Cover-Up to Catastrophe and pushing for the film to be featured in the Tribeca Film Festival. A few days after, De Niro decided not to include the film, most likely realising the larger-scale impact that this could have on the country’s already declining health.
Lastly, it shouldn’t be forgotten that more people are involved in the whole vaccination drama and therefore should be held accountable. Health professionals have to take accountability or be made to do so in this matter as well. We need to ensure that doctors giving shots are equipped with concrete information and available to talk to those who have concerns, so that parents can feel like they’re making well-informed decisions.
Conspiracy theories are fine and should be left alone to thrive on Reddit as long as they’re not hurting people in the process. People that don’t make the effort to promote vaccination are unknowingly allowing anti-vaxxers to do their damage. Anti-vaxxers should be called out—by the government, by doctors, by you, me—so that putting kids’ vaccination ‘on hold’ becomes shocking and taboo again. It’s a matter of life and death.