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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 10 hours ago - World

UK government: Kremlin has plan "to install pro-Russian leadership" in Ukraine

British Foreign Secretary Elizabeth Truss. Photo: Gints Ivuskans / AFP via Getty Images

The United Kingdom's Foreign Secretary on Saturday night said the government has "information that indicates the Russian Government is looking to install a pro-Russian leader in Kyiv as it considers whether to invade and occupy Ukraine."

Driving the news: U.S. National Security Council spokeswoman Emily Horne called the intelligence "deeply concerning" in a statement to Axios. The Biden administration has said Russia is actively manufacturing a pretext for invasion and warned that Putin could use joint military exercises in Belarus as cover to invade from the north.

Updated 12 hours ago - Science

This powerful new accelerator looks for keys to the center of atoms

Illustration: Eniola Odetunde/Axios

Nuclear physicists trying to piece together how atoms are built are about to get a powerful new tool.

Why it matters: When the Facility for Rare Isotope Beams begins experiments later this spring, physicists from around the world will use the particle accelerator to better understand the inner workings of atoms that make up all the matter that can be seen in the universe.

Updated 12 hours ago - Politics & Policy

Omicron dashboard

Illustration: Aïda Amer/Axios

  1. Health: FDA OKs antiviral drug remdesivir for non-hospitalized COVID patients — Walensky: CDC language "pivoting" on "fully vaccinated" — Pfizer and Moderna boosters overwhelmingly prevent Omicron hospitalizations, CDC finds.
  2. Vaccines: The case for Operation Warp Speed 2.0 — Teens and adults missed 37 million vaccinations during COVID — Team USA 100% vaccinated against COVID ahead of Beijing Olympics — Kids' COVID vaccination rates are particularly low in rural America — Annual COVID vaccine preferable to boosters, says Pfizer CEO.
  3. Politics: Arizona governor sues Biden administration over COVID funds tied to mandates — Biden concedes U.S. should have done more testing — Arizona says it "will not be intimidated" by Biden on anti-mask school policies.
  4. World: American Airlines flight to London forced to turn around over mask dispute — WHO: COVID health emergency could end this year — Greece imposes vaccine mandate for people 60 and older — Austria approves COVID vaccine mandate for adults — Beijing officials urge COVID-19 "emergency mode" before Winter Olympics.
  5. Variant tracker