Genes, vaccines, God – and a great debate

Jab done: Inoculating billions of people could involve shark liver, tree bark and sand.

Is genetic modification wrong? Some people may refuse to take two new vaccines against Covid-19 because they are genetically engineered – but scientists assure us that the jabs are safe.

It took mere hours for the misinformation to start bubbling up. No sooner had Pfizer and BioNTech announced a new vaccine, than a prominent right-wing journalist in the USA was tweeting out to her 264,000 followers that it “tampers with your DNA”.

In October, before the progress on the vaccine was even announced, a crowd marched through London calling the jab “poison”. The reason? It uses a kind of genetic modification.

It is not just a small fringe that opposes the use of genetic modification – or GM – in medicine; Prince Charles has spoken out against it. And a range of celebrities, from Gwyneth Paltrow to Mark Ruffalo, are publicly critical of its use in food.

Genetic modification refers to an array of very different techniques that bring about a change in the DNA of an organism. The most basic kind of GM is selective breeding, which has been practised for thousands of years.

But more recently, advances in technology have allowed scientists to alter DNA more directly. Scientists can use enzymes to splice sections of DNA – or genes – from the cells of one organism and put them into another.

A plant or animal that has been genetically modified is referred to as a genetically modified organism, or GMO. In agriculture, organisms can be edited to become more resistant to drought and disease, lowering the risk of famine.

GMOs can also be used for a variety of purposes in medicine. Artificial insulin, vital for diabetes patients, is mostly produced by genetically modified bacteria. An ongoing programme to eliminate the Zika virus has released millions of GM mosquitoes carrying a protein that will kill their offspring before they reach maturity, reducing their populations to manageable levels.

One advantage of vaccines based on GM is that they do not need adjuvants, additional materials that are added to vaccines to boost our immune response. These can often be difficult to source. For example, other vaccines have used squalene, an oil found in the livers of sharks. Sourcing enough for a Covid-19 vaccine would require the killing of half a million sharks each year.

However, some think that it is wrong to practise GM, arguing that it is an affront to human dignity. They believe that the technology behind GM is underdeveloped, and too young for its long-term impacts to be known.

Many critics are misinformed; a number of viral posts suggest that the vaccine will alter our DNA, however, the vaccine actually works by stimulating our cells to produce antibodies. This is an entirely natural process that does not change our DNA.

Other sceptics worry about the impact of GM on the natural environment and on agriculture. Activists warn that animals whose ecosystems depend on traditional crops may not survive the transition to GM. They say that this could cause wide ecological damage.

Since GMOs can be patented, there are also concerns that the big companies that produce them might drive smaller producers out of business, or make them dependent on the patented products.

Is genetic modification wrong?

Given the gene light

Wrong as can be, say some. They think that scientists who carry out genetic engineering are playing God. They warn that while GM seems to be harmless for now, we are not yet aware of its long-term effects. They also worry that GM opens the door to even greater commercialisation of food and medicines, from which big corporations will profit, and that it will damage the natural environment.

Right as rain, say others. They point out that GM has been practised for millennia, in the form of selective breeding. Even the more invasive techniques now have decades of testing behind them. GM medicines have to go through a rigorous testing process to prove their effectiveness and safety. Previous scares over the safety of GM medicines, like artificial insulin, turned out to be unfounded.

You Decide

  1. Is it wrong for scientists to do risky experiments in order to further human knowledge, if the consequences might be harmful for others?
  2. Is it important to win people’s consent for scientific advances with a social impact? How can we best do this?

Activities

  1. Imagine that you could genetically re-engineer a human being. Draw a diagram with some of the features you might change or add. Is it right to change anything?
  2. Imagine that you are an official in charge of distributing the new Covid-19 vaccine, and a group of demonstrators has gathered outside your office protesting against it. Write a short speech in which you try to persuade them that it is safe and necessary for them to take the vaccine.

Some People Say...

“God makes all things good; man meddles with them and they become evil.”

Jean-Jacques Rousseau (1712-1778), French philosopher

What do you think?

Q & A

What do we know?
Most people agree that the natural world is a very complex system, and it is usually sensible for technology to adapt itself to nature, rather than work against it. For example, when the bullet train was first built, it made a loud “boom” every time it went through a tunnel, thanks to air resistance. Engineers solved the issue by redesigning its nose to resemble the beak of a kingfisher, a very streamlined design that the bird evolved so that it could dive into water after its prey.
What do we not know?
There is some debate over the meaning of human dignity. Some opponents of medical GM argue that it violates our dignity as human beings, but there is no clear definition of the term. Theologian Thomas Aquinas thought that our “dignity” is a special value given to us by God. The Philosopher Immanuel Kant argued that “dignity” describes human beings’ capacity to make ethical choices. However, some think that human dignity does not really exist, or that it is not unique to humans.

Word Watch

Selective breeding
Making animals with desirable characteristics mate in order to produce future generations that display those characteristics prominently. For example, cows are often bred to have faster muscle growth.
Enzymes
A biological catalyst that speeds up chemical reactions.
Genes
A DNA sequence that determines a particular aspect of the physical appearance of an organism.
Famine
A sudden drop in the food supply. Famines have affected human societies throughout history, and still continue today.
Insulin
A hormone, produced in the pancreas, that allows human beings to digest carbohydrates. Diabetes is a life-threatening condition in which human beings do not produce insulin naturally; sufferers have to be given insulin from an external source.
Zika
A virus spread by mosquitoes that affects millions in Africa, Asia and South America. Although it causes only mild symptoms in adults, when it infects pregnant women it can cause birth defects in their children.
Antibodies
A protein produced in the body that latches onto a virus cell’s antigens – the small spikes on its surface – in order to neutralise it. Each virus has different antigens, and so needs unique antibodies.
Patented
A patent is a kind of intellectual property claim that prevents anyone except the patent holder from making or selling their invention.

Subjects

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