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. No sooner had a new vaccine been announced, than a right-wing journalist was tweeting that it “tampers with your DNA”.

Already, a crowd had marched through London calling the jab “poison”. The reason? It uses genetic modification.

It is not just a small fringe that opposes the use of genetic modification – or GM – in medicine; Prince Charles and a range of celebrities have spoken out against it.

Genetic modification refers to techniques that change the DNA of an organism.

Advances have allowed scientists to alter DNA directly.

Anything that has been genetically modified is referred to as a genetically modified organism, or GMO.

GMOs can be used for medicine.

One advantage of vaccines based on GM is that they do not need additional materials to boost our immune response. Other vaccines have used an oil found in the livers of sharks.

Some think it is wrong to practise GM.

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

Other sceptics worry about the impact of GM on the environment and on agriculture.

Since GMOs can be patented, there are concerns that big companies will drive smaller producers out of business.

Is genetic modification wrong?

Given the gene light

Yes. Scientists are playing God. While GM seems harmless, we do not know its long-term effects. GM opens the door to greater commercialisation of food and medicines.

No. GM has been practised for millennia, in the form of selective breeding. Even the more invasive techniques have decades of testing. GM medicines have to go through rigorous testing. Scares over the safety of GM medicines have been 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?

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?

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

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.

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