Zombie Apocalypse? How Gene Editing Could Be Used as a Weapon – and What to Do About It

Whether CRISPR could be used to infect humans in a way to make them zombie-like remains a theoretical speculation. At the moment, there are probably easier ways to terrorize people. But as biotechnologies improve in the wake of COVID, the risk from bioterrorism is increasing.

If a zombie-like disease could be created, it clearly wouldn’t make deceased people reawaken as zombies. But an infection that passed through saliva with extremely high transmission and mortality rate, and which caused agitation, destructive behavior and death, wouldn’t be far off the horror that we see in zombie movies. Such a virus would spread rapidly from human to human in a similar manner to diseases such as Ebola and Marburg viruses. In the epic zombie film, 28 Days Later, the fictitious “rage virus” was, in fact, inspired by these two real-life viruses.

Given these possibilities, it is not surprising that the director of the US National Intelligence, James Clapper, termed gene editing “weapons of mass destruction and proliferation” in 2018.

Many countries are aware of the risks. In 2018, the US government released its first bio-defense strategy, involving multiple government agencies. The plan covers not only deliberate bioterror threats, but also “naturally occurring outbreaks and infectious diseases that escape a lab accidentally”. And, curiously, the US Department of Defense Strategic Command unit has issued a training program called CONOP 8888 (Counter-Zombie Dominance), which simulates a zombie apocalypse situation. However, this was designed to be completely fictitious, providing military and defense training without the need to involve real, classified information.

How to Stop It
Do we stand a chance against such gene-edited pathogens? We have international law conventions on biological and chemical toxins. These strictly prohibit states from acquiring or retaining biological weapons. But it is questionable whether these are adequate in the face of novel approaches. Gene editing technologies such as CRISPR are getting cheaper and easier to work with. That means rogue scientists or organizations could use them for bioterrorism.

Ideally, specific provisions in these international instruments should be revisited and adapted to the changing environment. This may include imposing a moratorium on experimenting with gene editing as biological weapon tools or allowing experimentation strictly for benefiting human health.

In June, a WHO expert committee published two reports (see here and here) that made recommendations about how human genome editing could be governed at the appropriate institutional, national and global level. Its framework incorporates structures of governance that already exist in different countries, such as regulatory authorities or national guidelines regarding genome editing or similar technologies. It recommends, for example, that ethics committees review clinical trials and approvals in the area.

While these recommendations provide some clarity, it is concerning that these are simply guidelines that do not have the force of law. The WHO is not in a position to regulate genome editing in individual countries. It therefore becomes incumbent on individual countries to implement these recommendations as part of their own national law. Another problem is that the guidelines do not address issues of safety and efficacy – stating this wasn’t part of the scope of the review. But that may change going forward.

For now, these recommendations are the closest thing we have to a global framework of governance. And as the technology continues to develop, it is hoped that they will also evolve accordingly. But ultimately, we may need to think about how to make such frameworks legally binding.

If all else fails, we might have to start working on our cardio and survival skills, and take a leaf out of the books of survivalist preppers.

Pin Lean Lau is Lecturer in Bio-Law, Brunel Law School | Centre for Artificial Intelligence: Social & Digital Innovations, Brunel University London. This article is published courtesy of The Conversation.