A research report in Nature Medicine contradicts the likelihood of intentional engineering of a pathogen for military use, on the basis that Sars-CoV-2 isn’t a mishmash of known viruses as the authors would expect of an engineered virus. But genetic engineering could well be the cause of the next pandemic — and India needs to be as prepared for this. Covid-19 has brought India’s economy to its knees even as it left China practically unscathed. This has undoubtedly brought home to the Communist Party of China (CPC) that biological pathogens can be as destructive as nuclear missiles — and have almost no geopolitical repercussions.
The technologies have democratised to such a degree that any country can engineer viruses. To start with, a lab would need to obtain the genetic information of viruses. The first genetic sequencing of the bacterium Escherichia coli was in the 1990s, when sequencing the bacterium’s four-and-a-half million base pairs took weeks of effort and tens of millions of dollars. Today, to spell out the three billion base pairs that dictate the construction and maintenance of a human being costs about $1,000 in the US and can be done in hours.
There should have been international treaties to prevent the use of CRISPR for gene-editing humans or animals; governments should have placed restrictions on labs doing the type of research that the University of Alberta and Wuhan Institute of Virology (among others) did. But there have been no checks or balances, and it is too late to stop the global spread of these technologies. The genie is out of the bottle.
The only solution, now, is to accelerate the good side of these technologies and build defences. In the second part of this article tomorrow, I will explain the types of bio-defences that India can and must build.