WHO calls for global gene editing research registry as debate over moratorium rages
Following on from a recent call for a global moratorium on human germline gene editing, several scientists have pushed back against the idea, suggesting blanket prohibition is both redundant and problematic. The World Health Organization's advisory panel on the topic also sidestepped the issue of a moratorium, instead recommending a central registry on human genome editing research be created.
Over a dozen scientists recently co-signed an editorial published in Nature presenting a case for the immediate international stop to any potential human germline editing. The proposal suggested a pause on clinical research for five-years while discussions can be had and time allowed for some kind of global coordinating body to be established.
Not all scientists were behind the idea of a moratorium with influential Harvard geneticist George Church, for example, suggesting a moratorium is an empty gesture without effective legislation and policing in place.
"It's not sufficient that everybody promises to do the right thing," Church said in an interview with Stat News. "You need an enforcement mechanism. Just calling for another moratorium is posturing."
G. Owen Schaefer, a biomedical ethicist from the National University of Singapore, effectively summed up the general concerns against a moratorium on germline gene editing in an editorial for The Conversation. Schaefer stresses that there is almost universal agreement, from both sides of the argument, on a number of points. It is clear the science of germline gene editing is not ready for human clinical testing, and a substantial public conversation needs to take place to discuss how research should move forward.
However, Schaefer notes that germline editing is already banned in around 30 countries, essentially rendering any moratorium at best redundant, and at worst confusing, with the general public perhaps being given the impression that the technology is currently unregulated and permitted. Schaefer also questions whether an arbitrary five-year time frame is too rigid a framework to explore such a complex issue.
"While the technology is currently not fit for clinical use, are scientists so certain that it still won't be within five years' time?" writes Schaefer. "More flexible regulatory frameworks that do not include arbitrary timelines could better adapt to rapid scientific developments and shifts in public perceptions."
Following the He Jiankui revelations late in 2018 the WHO established a global multi-disciplinary expert panel to investigate the ethical and legal challenges associated with human gene editing. The goal of the panel is to help develop a global governance framework to ensure scientific and ethical best practice for researchers working in the field.
Last week the panel revealed its first general statement on how it will move forward, and it conspicuously avoided using the term "moratorium". The panel did agree that it is, "irresponsible at this time for anyone to proceed with clinical applications of human germline genome editing."
However, instead of suggesting a global ban on the science, it was agreed that a central registry needs to be created. This registry would require all research into human genome editing be tracked, allowing for a transparent database of all ongoing work.
"The committee will develop essential tools and guidance for all those working on this new technology to ensure maximum benefit and minimal risk to human health," says Soumya Swamanathan, WHO Chief Scientist, outlining the work that will be done over the next couple of years.
It seems that although most scientists around the globe are in agreement that it is too soon right now to be experimenting with human germline gene editing, there is disagreement over whether a moratorium is useful, or just a needless distraction from real regulatory discussions. George Daley, dean of Harvard Medical School, sums up the problem, suggesting there is a need for an international framework to be established but not under a moratorium.
"I'm concerned a moratorium complicates future discussions rather than clarifies them," says Daley. "How long should a moratorium last? How is it enforced? Who gets to decide when to rescind it?"