WHO paves way for stronger international human gene-editing regulations

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The World Health Organisation committee on gene editing has called on all scientists conducting human genome research to open discussions with the committee so as to ensure that their work meets current scientific and ethical best practices.

This call was made by the advisory committee set up by the health agency to develop a global standard for governance and oversight of human genome editing.

The committee was set up after the birth of the first gene-edited babies – the results of an experiment by a Chinese scientist, He Jiankui.

Mr Jiankui had genetically altered human embryos and planted them in a woman who gave birth to twins last year. Mr Jiankui’s action had caused alarm among researchers, ethicist, and policymakers because there is little known information about the safety and health effect of gene editing of a human embryo.

Some of the concern raised is that the technology can be misused to create genetically altered human beings and heighten their physical features, intelligence among others.

Among those who voiced concerns were Bill Gates, the co-founder of Microsoft and a philanthropist.

In his 2018 wrap-up notes, Mr Gates warned that nobody is paying attention to gene editing, a new technology that could make inequity worse, especially if it is available only for wealthy people.

Based on the concerns, the WHO committee on gene editing, after a two-day meeting in Geneva, agreed to work towards a strong international governance framework in the area.

Soumya Swamanathan, WHO Chief Scientist, said 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.

WHO said over the next two years, through a series of in-person meetings and online consultations, the committee will consult with a wide range of stakeholders and provide recommendations for a comprehensive governance framework that is scalable, sustainable and appropriate for use at the international, regional, national and local levels.

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