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Illustration: Rebecca Zisser/Axios

Ethicists and experts are afraid of what comes next, now that a Chinese scientist claims to have created the world’s first genetically engineered child.

The big picture: The way this project was targeted, conducted and announced has raised red flags about the ethical use of gene-editing tools — and some experts fear “designer babies” are the next logical step.

Driving the news: Chinese scientist He Jiankui announced Sunday night that a pair of twin girls had been born from embryos he modified using the gene-editing tool known as CRISPR.

  • He hasn’t provided solid proof, but if it‘s true, it would be the first time the technology has been used to engineer a human.

What they’re saying: The inventors of CRISPR technology did not seem pleased with the development — one called for a moratorium on implantation edited embryos into potential mothers.

  • “I hope we will be more cautious in the next thing we try to do, and think more carefully about when you should use technology versus when you could use technology,” said Jessica Berg, a bioethicist at Case Western Reserve University.

Between the lines: Several specific factors in He’s work sent up ethical red flags.

  • Many scientists had assumed that, when this technology was first used in humans, it would edit out mutations tied to a single gene that were certain to cause a child pain and suffering once it was born — essentially, as a last resort.
  • But He used CRISPR to, as he put it, “close a door” that HIV could have one day traveled through. That has prompted some speculation that this project was more about testing the technology than serving an acute medical need.
  • “That should make us very uneasy about the whole situation,” Berg said. “Of all the things to have started with, it does make you a little suspicious about this particular choice.”

The intrigue: There’s a lot we still don’t know about He’s work, and that’s also contributing to an attitude of skepticism.

  • How many embryos did he edit and implant before these live births?
  • How will he know it worked? As the children age, they’ll likely have their blood drawn and those samples will be exposed to HIV in a lab, but researchers aren’t going to tell them to go out and have unprotected sex or use intravenous drugs — another reason HIV seems like an odd starting place for human gene editing.
  • How did this even happen? The university where He worked said he was on leave, and Chinese officials have said he’s under investigation. But gene editing is a pretty hard thing to freelance.

The other side: He defended his work in a video message, saying, “I understand my work will be controversial, but I believe families need this technology and I’m willing to take the criticism for them.”

  • “Their parents don’t want a designer baby, just a child who won’t suffer from a disease which medicine can now prevent,” He said.

Yes, but: Now that this threshold may have been crossed, attempts to create “designer babies” — within the limitations of what CRISPR can do — probably aren’t far off, some experts fear.

  • There are “likely to be places that are less regulated than others, where people are going to attempt to see what they can do,” Berg said. “I wouldn’t say everything in the world has changed now, but it’s certainly the next step.”

Go deeper

Updated 8 mins ago - Politics & Policy

Coronavirus dashboard

Illustration: Rae Cook/Axios

  1. Health: CDC expects new COVID surge starting this month — Coronavirus cases hit a seven-month low
  2. Politics: Federal judge overturns CDC's eviction moratorium — Why Biden's latest vaccine goal is his hardest yet.
  3. Vaccines: Moderna says its COVID booster shot shows promise against variants — U.S. will support waiving vaccine patents — Education secretary: All schools expected to be fully in-person this fall
  4. Economy: U.S. may have added more than 2 million jobs in April — A surge in youth unemployment.
  5. World: True COVID-19 death toll is double the official numbers, study finds — Countries testing J&J vaccine doses after contamination at Baltimore plant — Germany opposes Biden's support for waiving vaccine patents
  6. Variant tracker: Where different strains are spreading.
Dave Lawler, author of World
18 mins ago - World

True COVID-19 death toll is double the official numbers, study finds

Expand chart
Data: IHME; Chart: Will Chase/Axios

There have been twice as many deaths from COVID-19 around the world as have been reported, according to the University of Washington's Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation (IHME), which analyzed excess mortality and other factors.

The big picture: The U.S. has undercounted by over 300,000 deaths, while the death tolls in India and Mexico — second and third on the list, respectively — are nearly three times the official numbers, according to the analysis.

Top Wall Street cop says report on meme stocks is coming

Photo: Andrew Harrer/Bloomberg via Getty Images

Wall Street's top regulator says a report examining meme stock mania will be coming "sometime this summer."

The big picture: It will "detail the range of activities" that came out of the January events," SEC chair Gary Gensler said Thursday at a third congressional hearing held to dissect the GameStop trading phenomenon.

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