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Illustration: Rebecca Zisser/Axios

National Institutes of Health director Francis Collins and top science and ethics experts in the U.S. and 6 other countries today called for an international 5-year moratorium on editing human germlines, or the type of genes that are heritable.

Why it matters: Spurred by the recent discovery of twin babies born after being edited as embryos in China, scientists and ethicists have debated what steps should happen next — and these experts say a temporary moratorium is needed until it's no longer believed that "the risk of failing to make the desired change or of introducing unintended mutations (off-target effects) is still unacceptably high."

What's happening: The commentary from scientists and ethicists published in Nature Wednesday as well as a supportive statement from Collins — calls for a 5-year moratorium and the development of a global framework to support future moves on germline editing.

Of note: The suggested moratorium would not cover germline editing for research purposes only, or the editing of non-germline cells in humans (called somatic cells) to treat diseases.

"Certainly, the framework we are calling for will place major speed bumps in front of the most adventurous plans to re-engineer the human species. But the risks of the alternative — which include harming patients and eroding public trust — are much worse."
Nature commentary
"Until nations can commit to international guiding principles to help determine whether and under what conditions such research should ever proceed, NIH strongly agrees that an international moratorium should be put into effect immediately. "
— Francis Collins in published statement

Meanwhile, the World Health Organization has formed an expert panel that is meeting in Geneva March 18–19 to recommend governance mechanisms and develop a 12- to 18-month work plan.

Details: According to a WHO spokesperson, its advisory committee plans to...

  • Review current research and applications being conducted in human gene editing, its potential uses and societal attitudes toward different uses of this technology.
  • Advise the secretariat and director general at WHO on potential oversight mechanisms for future research and application of the technology going forward.
  • Make recommendations on global governance structures for research and its application in human genome editing.
  • "Core to this work will be understanding how to promote transparency and trustworthy practices and how to ensure appropriate risk/benefit assessments are performed prior to any decision on authorization," spokesperson Tarik Jasarevic tells Axios.

Jonathan Moreno, medical ethicist from the University of Pennsylvania, tells Axios the use of the word "moratorium" today is strong and perhaps "pause" may have been a better choice.

  • "They don't want a treaty, but it is governmental, what they are asking for," he adds.
  • Moreno says he hopes WHO builds on the foundation from the 2017 consensus study report on human genome editing by the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine, with rules to boost transparency and scrutiny.

Go deeper

In photos: Protests in U.S., across the world over Israeli–Palestinian conflict

A protest march in support of Palestinians near the Washington monument in Washington, D.C. on May 15. Photo: Andrew Caballero-Reynolds/AFP via Getty Images

Thousands of people rallied across the U.S. and the world Saturday following days of violence in Gaza and Israel that's killed at least 145 Palestinians, including 41 children, and eight Israelis, per AP.

The big picture: Most demonstrations were in support of Palestinians. There were tense scenes between pro-Israeli government protesters and pro-Palestinian demonstrators in Winnipeg, Canada, and Leipzig, Germany, but no arrests were made, CBS News and DW.com report.

Updated 9 hours ago - World

Biden in call with Netanyahu raises concerns about civilian casualties in Gaza

Photo: Ahmad Gharabli/Nicholas Kamm/Getty Images

President Biden spoke to Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu Saturday and raised concerns about civilian casualties in Gaza and the bombing of the building that housed AP and other media offices, according to Israeli officials.

The big picture: At least 140 Palestinians, including dozens of children, have been killed in Gaza since fighting between Israel and Hamas began Monday, according to Palestinian health officials. Nine people, including two children, have been killed by Hamas rockets in Israel.

Updated 10 hours ago - Politics & Policy

"Horrified": AP, Al Jazeera condemn Israel's bombing of their offices in Gaza

A ball of fire erupts from the Jalaa Tower as it is destroyed in an Israeli airstrike in Gaza. Photo: Majdi Fathi/NurPhoto via Getty Images

The Associated Press and Al Jazeera on Saturday condemned the Israeli airstrike that destroyed a high-rise building in Gaza that housed their and other media offices.

What they're saying: The White House, meanwhile, said it had "communicated directly to the Israelis that ensuring the safety and security of journalists and independent media is a paramount responsibility," according to press secretary Jen Psaki.