The Genetic Engineering Genie Is Out of the Bottle

The Genetic Engineering Genie Is Out of the Bottle

Usually good for a conspiracy theory or two, U.S. President Donald Trump has suggested that the virus causing COVID-19 was either intentionally engineered or resulted from a lab accident at the Wuhan Institute of Virology in China. Its release could conceivably have involved an accident, but the pathogen isn’t the mishmash of known viruses that one would expect from something designed in a lab, as a research report in Nature Medicine conclusively lays out. “If someone were seeking to engineer a new coronavirus as a pathogen, they would have constructed it from the backbone of a virus known to cause illness,” the researchers said.

But if genetic engineering wasn’t behind this pandemic, it could very well unleash the next one. With COVID-19 bringing Western economies to their knees, all the world’s dictators now know that pathogens can be as destructive as nuclear missiles. What’s even more worrying is that it no longer takes a sprawling government lab to engineer a virus. Thanks to a technological revolution in genetic engineering, all the tools needed to create a virus have become so cheap, simple, and readily available that any rogue scientist or college-age biohacker can use them, creating an even greater threat. Experiments that could once only have been carried out behind the protected walls of government and corporate labs can now practically be done on the kitchen table with equipment found on Amazon. Genetic engineering—with all its potential for good and bad—has become democratized.