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Illustration: Sarah Grillo/Axios

As gene-altering technologies become more accessible, there's also a growing risk that they'll be dangerously misused or abused.

Why it matters: "You're talking about manipulating DNA to create a designer pathogen. That’s a terrorist threat," former FDA Commissioner Scott Gottlieb told me.

The big picture: Ethical questions about CRISPR, the gene editing tool, are as old as the technology itself, and they intensified last year with the news of the first gene-edited babies in China.

  • These questions have been further complicated by the fact that genetic alteration technologies are now relatively cheap and easy to use.
  • “These threats have been on people’s mind and on the horizon for a long time. I think now they’re just becoming more manifest because costs are coming down, the technology is more manageable — you don’t have to be as sophisticated to deploy it," Gottlieb said.

Driving the news: NPR reported last week that as synthetic DNA gets cheaper and easier to make, there's growing concern about the technology being used to create bioweapons or dangerous viruses.

  • Josiah Zayner, a "biohacker" who became notorious for using CRISPR on himself in 2017, runs The ODIN, a company that sells DIY gene-editing kits online and teaches people how to use CRISPR. The kits are available on Amazon.
  • California passed a law this summer that outlaws the sale of DIY genetic engineering kits unless they come with explicit warnings that they're not to be used for self-administration, Vox reports.

At the same time, scientific advances in genetics have made breakthrough therapies possible.

  • Only 3 weeks ago, Chinese researchers used CRISPR technology to safely treat a man with cancer and HIV, Bloomberg reported.
  • Legitimate drug development comes with its own complicated ethical questions. Patients and parents of children with life-threatening diseases are likely to start asking for experimental gene therapies, STAT reported last week.

Gene testing — as opposed to gene altering — poses new risks, as well.

  • When consumer DNA testing databases began being used by law enforcement to crack criminal cases, privacy questions arose. And privacy issues have been amplified as medical and sperm donors have lost their assurance of anonymity.
  • DNA testing has also opened the door to creative forms of fraud. Just last week, federal agents took down an alleged Medicare fraud scheme in which seniors were convinced to get their cheeks swabbed for unnecessary DNA tests, as STAT reports.

Go deeper: The ethical red flags of genetically edited babies

Go deeper

Updated 3 hours ago - Politics & Policy

House cancels Thursday session as FBI, Homeland Security warn of threat to Capitol

Photo: Eric Baradat/AFP via Getty Images

The FBI and Department of Homeland Security predict violent domestic extremists attacks will increase in 2021, according to a report obtained by Axios.

Driving the news: The joint report says extremists have discussed plans to take control of the Capitol and "remove Democratic lawmakers" on or about March 4. The House canceled its plans for Thursday votes as word of the possible threats spread.

4 hours ago - World

Pope Francis set to make first papal visit to Iraq amid possible turmoil

Data: Vatican News; Map: Danielle Alberti/Axios

Pope Francis is forging ahead with the first papal trip to Iraq despite new coronavirus outbreaks and fears of instability.

The big picture: The March 5–8 visit is intended to reassure Christians in Iraq who were violently persecuted under the Islamic State. Francis also hopes to further ties with Shiite Muslims, AP notes.

"Neanderthal thinking": Biden slams states lifting mask mandates

States that are relaxing coronavirus restrictions are making "a big mistake," President Biden told reporters on Wednesday, adding: "The last thing we need is Neanderthal thinking."

Driving the news: Texas Gov. Greg Abbott (R) said Wednesday he will end all coronavirus restrictions via executive order, although some businesses are continuing to ask patrons to wear face masks. Mississippi is lifting its mask mandate for all counties Wednesday, per Gov. Tate Reeves (R).