Nov 29, 2018

Gene editing moves into a frightening new stage

Illustration: Aïda Amer/Axios

The possibility that babies from genetically edited embryos may have been born in China has pushed the science into a frightening new stage. It has become more real, even if scientists don't think it should be done in this way.

Why it matters: If nothing else, the scientific world is now talking more seriously about the implications of gene editing embryos than they did when it was just a prospect.

The international reaction has been mostly outrage.

  • He Jiankui, the scientist who claims he edited and implanted the embryos that resulted in a twin birth earlier this month, spoke earlier this week at a symposium in Hong Kong about how and why he decided to buck international guidelines from the U.S. and the U.K. on experimenting with editing embryos.
  • He stirred even more dismay when he mentioned the possibility of a second pregnancy.

Between the lines: Not everyone viewed it as a complete disaster. In fact, some scientists are ready to move ahead.

  • Harvard Medical School's George Daley suggested at the conference in Hong Kong that it's time to reconsider the massive amounts of research that was done over the past three years since the international guidance was created.
  • "Just because the first steps into a new technology are missteps doesn't mean we shouldn't step back, restart and think about a plausible" method of moving forward, Daley said.

What they're saying: There are concerns about the safety and efficacy of editing genes in adults, and editing embryos raises an even bigger ethical concern: The genetic changes and all the unknowns around them can be passed down to future generations.

  • Patrick David Hsu of the Salk Institute tells Axios, "This is bad, irresponsible science."
  • Eric Topol of Scripps Research Translational Institute says: "This was the fear — that someone, someday, would do something before it was ready. ... But, for the most part, there was international consensus that we were not ready."
  • National Institutes of Health director Francis Collins made it clear on Twitter that he wants to slow it down: "The need for development of binding international consensus on setting limits for this kind of research, now being debated in Hong Kong, has never been more apparent. Without such limits, the world will face the serious risk of a deluge of similarly ill-considered and unethical projects."

What to watch: Scientists are cautious about predicting what the impact will be, in part because the details of this claim are thin. The way medical ethicist Jonathan Moreno from the University of Pennsylvania talks about it illustrates the conflict: He's aware of its potential to change the trajectory of science, but also skeptical that this particular experiment is real.

  • Moreno says the situation reminds him of other times in history where there were tremors in the science world, like the death of 18-year-old Jesse Gelsinger in 1999 from a gene therapy trial that led to years of diminished research.
  • "I think it could be a huge event, like the Gelsinger death ... especially if there really is a third baby. On the other hand, he hasn't [published] anything, so we can't be sure."

The bottom line: The alarm over what could be next is real. Moreno says there's concern it could hinder current research projects, and Hsu says there's hope it may spur more needed transparency in research. But the science is moving forward, and we're all going to have to grapple with what's next.

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Scoop: Inside the epic White House fight over hydroxychloroquine

Illustration: Eniola Odetunde/Axios

The White House coronavirus task force had its biggest fight yet on Saturday, pitting economic adviser Peter Navarro against infectious disease expert Anthony Fauci. At issue: How enthusiastically should the White House tout the prospects of an antimalarial drug to fight COVID-19?

Behind the scenes: This drama erupted into an epic Situation Room showdown. Trump's coronavirus task force gathered in the White House Situation Room on Saturday at about 1:30pm, according to four sources familiar with the conversation. Vice President Mike Pence sat at the head of the table.

Go deeperArrow16 mins ago - Health

Coronavirus dashboard

Illustration: Sarah Grillo/Axios

  1. Global: Total confirmed cases as of 5 p.m. ET: 1,260,104 — Total deaths: 69,082 — Total recoveries: 258,588Map.
  2. U.S.: Total confirmed cases as of 5 p.m. ET: 331,151 — Total deaths: 9.441 — Total recoveries: 16,848Map.
  3. Federal government latest: Surgeon general says this week will be "our Pearl Harbor, our 9/11 moment." The USDA confirms that a Bronx zoo tiger tested positive for coronavirus.
  4. 2020 latest: "We have no contingency plan," Trump said on the 2020 Republican National Convention. Biden says DNC may have to hold virtual convention.
  5. States updates: New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo said the state is "literally going day-to-day" with supplies.
  6. World update: Queen Elizabeth II urges the British people to confront pandemic with "self-discipline" and "resolve" in rare televised address.
  7. What should I do? Pets, moving and personal health. Answers about the virus from Axios expertsWhat to know about social distancingQ&A: Minimizing your coronavirus risk.
  8. Other resources: CDC on how to avoid the virus, what to do if you get it.

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Tiger at Bronx Zoo tests positive for coronavirus

A Malayan tiger cub in its enclosure at the Bronx Zoo on April 27, 2017. Photo: Andrew Lichtenstein/Corbis via Getty Images

A Malayan tiger at the Bronx Zoo has tested positive for the coronavirus, according to statements from the U.S. Department of Agriculture and the Wildlife Conservation Society, which manages the New York City zoo.

Why it matters: It's the first known animal to test positive for the virus in the United States. The tiger is believed to have contracted the virus from an asymptomatic zookeeper.

Go deeperArrow2 hours ago - Health