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 55 mins ago - World

At least 50 killed, 3,000 injured after massive explosion rocks Beirut

Photo: Anwar Amro/AFP via Getty Images

A major explosion has slammed central Beirut, Lebanon, damaging buildings as far as several miles away and injuring scores of people.

Driving the news: The cause of the explosion is unknown. Lebanon's health minister said in televised remarks that more than 50 people have been killed and over 3,000 injured.

2 hours ago - Podcasts

The debate over COVID-19 liability protections

Stimulus talks continue to move slowly, with Democrats and Republicans unable to agree on whether or not to include coronavirus-related liability protections for businesses, health facilities and schools.

Axios Re:Cap digs into the debate, which could reset the cost-benefit analysis for businesses thinking about reopening and employees thinking about returning.

Editor’s note: This episode has been updated to clarify that McConnell said a "second pandemic" of litigation could be coming, not legislation.

Updated 2 hours ago - Politics & Policy

Coronavirus dashboard

Illustration: Sarah Grillo/Axios

  1. Global: Total confirmed cases as of 3 p.m. ET: 18,364,694 — Total deaths: 695,848 — Total recoveries — 10,965,634Map.
  2. U.S.: Total confirmed cases as of 3 p.m. ET: 4,742,277 — Total deaths: 156,133 — Total recoveries: 1,513,446 — Total tests: 57,543,852Map.
  3. States: New York City health commissioner resigns in protest of De Blasio's coronavirus response — New York ER doctor on pandemic advice: "We know what works"
  4. Public health: 59% of Americans support nationwide 2-week stay-at-home order in NPR poll Atrium Health CEO says "virtual hospital" has treated 13,000 COVID patients.
  5. Politics: Republicans push to expand small business loan program Trump tells "Axios on HBO" that pandemic is "under control," despite surges in infections.
  6. Sports: Indy 500 to be held without fansRafael Nadal opts out of U.S. Open.