By Kevin M. Esvelt
Kevin M. Esvelt, an evolutionary and ecological engineer, is an assistant professor at the MIT Media Lab and inventor of CRISPR-based gene drive technology.
For 20 years, taxpayer-funded research programs have sought to identify or create pandemic-causing viruses, all with surprisingly little transparency. The latest evidence of the problem surfaced on Sept. 21 when a group of online snoops released purportedly leaked documents revealing a 2018 grant proposal. The proposal, which went unfunded, sought $14.2 million for a project to discover, combine and engineer highly infectious SARS-like coronaviruses.
Much of the attention stirred by the revelation focused on the proposal’s inclusion of preliminary data from the Wuhan Institute of Virology — a Chinese lab under scrutiny as a possible source of the covid-19 pandemic.
Questions about public oversight, accident risks and pandemic origins are all legitimate. But perhaps the biggest question of all isn’t being asked insistently enough: Why is anyone trying to teach the world how to make viruses that could kill millions of people?
Like nuclear physics, with its potential for global catastrophe when put to destructive ends, the proliferation of pandemic biology ought to be considered a matter of international security.