Dear UN, Don't Drive 'Gene Drives' Into a Ditch

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New genetic technology can either come to fruition and have a positive impact on our lives or be driven into the ground. The difference depends on whether the people making decisions understand the science and can accurately and properly weigh the risks and benefits.

In order for that to happen, scientists have to participate in open discourse, as education and communication are the keys to moving science forward to a place where changes can evolve to positively impact our health and the environment.

One the best examples of this goes back to 1953 when Dr. Jonas Salk announced during a national radio show that the vaccine against poliomyelitis had been tested and worked, sparking one of the largest and most important public health campaigns that our country has ever witnessed. 

Now, 63 years later, the topic may be different but the same concerns remain. 

Gene drive technology is certainly not immune to this type of controversy. If you want to brush up on how gene drives work, you can read our description here and a primer to the controversy can be read here.

The topic is on the docket to be discussed at the UN Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD) conference being held in Cancun, Mexico this week.

Environmental groups such as Friends of the Earth are there as well, pushing for a ban on gene drive technology, as was recently written about by ACSH president Hank Campbell (Environmentalists In Cancun: Gene Drives Will Cause Our Extinction, Now Pass The Caviar.) 

Other groups in support of the technology are also there, including Target Malaria, trying to counteract the ban that would stop the progress of gene drives in its tracks. They took the time to put together science based evidence and make their case by publishing an open letter on the website.

The first line of the letter doesn't leave any doubt on the stance of target malaria - "We urge you to support ongoing and new gene drive research, building on cautious and responsible practices and broad stakeholder dialogue."

And, that is to be expected. Their mission to stop malaria transmission is the most well known task that gene drive technology may make possible by the release of a modified mosquito. Target malaria is supported largely by The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation who are steep proponents of gene drive technology. 

Their letter states that gene drives are "a novel tool which may enable interventions that are durable, cost-effective, and highly efficacious, complementing existing efforts to improve human health and environmental sustainability" and that they should "resist current advocacy efforts demanding a ban on gene drive research or on the future use of gene drive-based products" and to "not make a foregone conclusion for or against this possible tool before its potential and risks can be appropriately evaluated." 

Whether gene drives make you nervous or not, you cannot argue with their main point that shutting down gene drive technology at this early stage would be a disservice not only to scientific progress but also to the millions of people that gene drives may help in the future. No one is talking about releasing mosquitoes tomorrow, in fact, even target malaria states that they are five years away from any action that goes beyond the lab and into the environment. But, putting a ban on such a powerful technology would be like banning space exploration. Progress involves risk, and shutting down the next step in the process would be a disservice to us all.