Explainer: The WHO gene editing committee

As human genome editing technologies advance, a World Health Organization committee is working to keep in check what it calls a 'highly dynamic scientific field.'

Most recently it has called for gene editing tools to be shared with poorer nations.

So where has the world got to on gene editing and what role exactly does the panel play?

EXPLAINED: The WHO gene editing committee

The WHO panel was established in late 2018 after a Chinese scientist said he had edited the genes of twin babies to make them resistant to HIV infection.

The WHO strongly opposes making modifications to the genetic code in humans, which would be passed on to future generations.

Robin Lovell Badge of Britain's Francis Crick Institute is one of the 18 committee members.

[Committee member, Robin Lovell-Badge]

"No-one in their right mind at the moment, should contemplate doing it because the techniques are simply not safe enough or efficient enough and we're not ready in terms of looking at all the ethical considerations, societal considerations."

But the technology also holds the promise of curing diseases such as HIV or sickle-cell disease and boosting fundamental medical knowledge.

Unequal access to this - the panel warns - could cement global disparities.

Intellectual property in medicine became a contested issue when U.S. President Joe Biden in May 2021 proposed a temporary waiver of vaccine patents

to make anti-COVID-19 shots more quickly available in low-income countries.

Pharmaceutical companies and other countries say such a step would be ineffective and risks discouraging work on future health technologies.

The panel says gene modification should only be conducted where sufficient policies and oversight are in place.

It warned against the spectre of rogue clinics attracting medical tourism to loosely regulated countries.

However - specific rules could be a while in the making.

The WHO said its Science Division would be given up to 3 years to initiate an extensive review of the recommendations, while the review itself could take as long as 18 months.

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