Uncertainty breeds panic. As Covid-19 spreads across the planet, stock markets have crashed in response to the economic impact this virus will wreak on the global economy and cities around the world are shutting down.
We shouldn’t really be surprised by SARS-CoV-2, the new coronavirus. We’ve seen this scenario play out before with Middle East respiratory syndrome (MERS) and severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS). In his book “Spillover: Animal Infections and the Next Human Pandemic,” David Quammen warned us years ago about the dangers of animal viruses jumping into humans. It was only a matter of time, he wrote, that our destruction of forests and jungles would put us in contact with bats and other wild species that harbor viruses that had previously gone undetected.
Covid-19 is a powerful narrative. It has twists and turns, with exotic animals like horseshoe bats and scaly pangolins playing the antagonists as the source of the infection. Our fears are piqued by how much is still unknown — about the best we’re told we can do to protect ourselves is to stay away from people and wash our hands frequently, which seems, in this high-tech era, far too mundane for something that has essentially shut down the U.S. and other countries.
As a television writer and producer of “ER,” “SVU,” and most recently “Designated Survivor,” I draw on audiences’ love-hate relationship with uncertainty to play on their emotions. I know that audiences love plots riven with unexpected twists and turns.
When we’ve emerged on the other side of the pandemic, Covid-19 will someday make a good story. But I worry that CRISPR could make Covid-19 look like child’s play.
CRISPR is a new genetic tool that lets scientists cut out a DNA sequence in an organism’s genome and replace it with another. The hope is that this ingenious scissors-and-glue system will be used to treat devastating genetic diseases like sickle cell anemia and beta thalassemia.
But there’s a dark side to CRISPR. A scientist or biohacker with basic lab know-how could conceivably buy DNA sequences and, using CRISPR, edit them to make an even more panic-inducing bacteria or virus. What’s to stop a rogue scientist from using CRISPR to conjure up an even deadlier version of Ebola or a more transmissible SARS?
When Netflix agreed to make the third season of “Designated Survivor,” moving it from ABC, I pitched a story line about CRISPR. In it, right-wing fanatics use CRISPR to target people of color by infecting their melanocytes — the cells that produce skin pigment. Using the tool this way sounds far-fetched, the stuff of television. Yet the idea of ethnic bioweapons has been around for years, particularly during apartheid in South Africa. Scientists there tried to develop weapons to target the black population under a secret mission called Project Coast.
Our story on CRISPR delved into the ethical dilemmas CRISPR now poses. How far should we go in editing the DNA of human beings? CRISPR can, and will, be used to treat terrible genetic diseases. But with that knowledge comes the ability to create viruses the likes of which we’ve never seen.
Using CRISPR to enhance, rather than to treat, human beings, is being discussed in scientific forums and in a recent special issue on CRISPR in the journal Perspectives in Biology and Medicine that I was asked to edit. One can imagine wealthy people pushing scientists to make CRISPR available for muscular enhancement or to increase height or whatever traits one wants to enhance if scientists can identify the proper DNA sequence.
The lure of money hangs over CRISPR and biotech is already in on the action, racing to develop treatments for a plethora of genetic diseases. Since these therapies are likely to be expensive, the question of who will be able to afford them and whether — as in the case of sickle cell disease, which afflicts more than 100,000 African Americans in the U.S. — it will be available to all who need it.
Television is a good venue for telling the CRISPR story and helping promote discussion of it beyond the rarified world of geneticists and scientists, some of whom would like to keep the conversation in the laboratory. We need oversight of the DNA sequences that can be readily purchased from companies and be edited to make both cures and virulent catastrophes.
Covid-19 rightfully dominates the media. But we should be talking about CRISPR, too. Before the first reports of the novel coronavirus began surfacing in the U.S., none of the Democratic presidential candidates said a word about CRISPR, and President Trump has never uttered its name. But it’s here, just as present, unpredictable, and powerful as Covid-19, unless we act now to control it.
Scientists knew about the novel coronavirus in 2017, though they didn’t know that a specific one was going to jump to humans and spread, like it did with MERS and SARS. It did, and we panicked. It’s OK to write a CRISPR story for television that follows that arc, but let’s not allow it to happen in real life. We — the public, scientists, lawmakers, and others — need to have thoughtful conversations about gene editing now, so there’s no panic later.
Neal Baer is a television writer and producer and lecturer on global health and social medicine at Harvard Medical School.