The world’s leading manufacturer and exporter of arms might now be looking to expand its arsenal further with bioweapons.
Emails obtained by the ETC group under freedom of information laws reveal that the US’s secretive Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (Darpa) has become the world’s largest funder of “gene drive” research. Such projects would involve using CRISPR technology to edit and alter DNA strands for specific purposes such as removing the ability for mosquitos to transmit malaria.
However, the dangers of wiping out entire species could spark a chain of unforeseeable ecological events. Ecosystems that depend on mosquitos or other organisms affected by this technology could suffer.
“My main worry,” a UN expert said, “is that we do something irreversible to the environment, despite our good intentions, before we fully appreciate the way that this technology will work.”
“Militarisation of gene drive funding may even contravene the Enmod convention against hostile uses of environmental modification technologies,” said co-director of the ETC, Jim Thomas.
“Many countries [will] have concerns when this technology comes from Darpa, a US military science agency,” a UN diplomat from the Convention on Biological Diversity said.
Between 2008 and 2014, the US government spent about $820m on synthetic biology. Since 2012, most of this has come from Darpa and other military agencies.
“There is no way this technology could be used for any military purpose,” said Andrea Crisanti, a professor at Imperial College London who confirmed he was hired by Darpa on a $2.5m contract to identify and disable such drives. “The general interest is in developing systems to contain the undesired effects of gene drives. We have never been asked to consider any application not for the good of eliminating plagues.”
However, the US have a lengthy history with biological weapons. Some of which they have tested on their own populations. Their official biological weapons program began in 1943, and lasted in secret for 27 years until Nixon supposedly ended its offensive applications. In 1972, the US signed the Biological Weapons Convention — which limited any biodefence research — but critics note that the BWC has no provisions for enforcement, meaning that the US is free to conduct research without any real consequence.
Besides that of warfare and environmental ruin.