REENGINEERING LIFE

China Is Reportedly Developing ‘Biologically Enhanced’ Soldiers. So Is the U.S.

Emerging technologies like CRISPR raise new possibilities for militaries

Reengineering Life is a series from Future Human about the astonishing ways genetic technology is changing humanity and the world around us.

China has reportedly conducted tests on members of its armed forces in hopes of developing soldiers with “biologically enhanced capabilities,” according to John Ratcliffe, the United States’ top intelligence official.

“China poses the greatest threat to America today,” warned Ratcliffe, who’s been President Trump’s director of national intelligence since May, in a Wall Street Journal commentary published last week that outlined the claims.

Radcliffe didn’t elaborate on what kind of biological enhancements the Chinese government is testing on military members, but NBC speculated that the experiments could involve the gene-editing technique CRISPR. NBC cited a 2019 policy paper written by two U.S. experts on China about China’s interest in using gene editing for military purposes.

“While the potential leveraging of CRISPR to increase human capabilities on the future battlefield remains only a hypothetical possibility at the present, there are indications that Chinese military researchers are starting to explore its potential,” wrote the authors, Elsa Kania, an adjunct senior fellow on Chinese military technology at the Center for a New American Security, and Wilson VornDick, a former Navy officer and a consultant on national security, emerging technologies, and China.

In China, CRISPR research has moved at a much faster pace than in the United States and Europe. In 2016, Chinese researchers were the first to use the gene-editing technique in a person. Then, Chinese scientist He Jiankui infamously used CRISPR to edit the genomes of two human embryos, which resulted in the birth of the world’s first gene-edited babies in 2018. Global outcry from the scientific community followed. He had removed a gene in an attempt to make the babies resistant to HIV, which many scientists decried as a form of enhancement. Whether the children are actually resistant to the virus is still unknown today.

Meanwhile, researchers in China are also conducting pig-to-monkey transplants of gene-edited organs, as well as genetically engineering monkeys to have autism and other brain disorders.

Currently, there are at least a dozen ongoing human clinical trials using CRISPR in China, according to a search on ClinicalTrials.gov, a database of human medical studies around the world that’s run by the U.S. National Institutes of Health. Several of these trials, including those for cancer and HIV, are taking place at hospitals operated by the People’s Liberation Army, China’s armed forces. Researchers in the United States and Europe are also testing the use of CRISPR in people for its ability to treat a handful of intractable genetic diseases.

Given China’s speed in advancing CRISPR research, the possibility that the country is exploring the use of gene editing on soldiers isn’t far-fetched. In fact, the U.S. government is also interested in CRISPR’s potential military applications. Last year, I wrote about a federal research program that aims to use a version of CRISPR to protect soldiers from deadly radiation. A program manager with the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency told me that the effects of such a therapy would be temporary and would not permanently change a person’s DNA. The technique is still in the early stages of development and has not yet been tested in people.

For the past several years, scientists, ethicists, and government officials have recognized CRISPR as a potential national security threat. In 2016, former director of national intelligence James Clapper added gene editing to a list of threats posed by “weapons of mass destruction and proliferation” in an annual intelligence report.

“Research in genome editing conducted by countries with different regulatory or ethical standards than those of Western countries probably increases the risk of the creation of potentially harmful biological agents or products,” the report stated. “Given the broad distribution, low cost, and accelerated pace of development of this dual-use technology, its deliberate or unintentional misuse might lead to far-reaching economic and national security implications.”

CRISPR-based bioweapons are currently hypothetical, but even so, scientists are working to develop “anti-CRISPR” proteins that could stop the effects of such a weapon.

Of course, there’s no hard proof that China is using CRISPR to create bioweapons or “super soldiers.” Scientific research in China is notoriously secretive. But there are many other ways to biologically “enhance” soldiers, some as mundane as diet and exercise programs, and others that are more ethically dubious, like performance-enhancing drugs and mind-reading devices.

The idea of enhancing soldiers is hardly new, and China is not the first superpower to try it. In Nazi Germany, methamphetamines and cocaine-based stimulants were distributed among the army to boost soldiers’ physical performance, increase risk-taking, and stave off sleep.

In the United States, the military has prescribed amphetamines and other stimulants for long endurance flights or critical missions. Throughout the years, U.S. military members have also been critical in the testing of vaccines, which could be considered a type of biological enhancement.

The U.S. government is also developing brain-computer interfaces — devices that “read” the brain to carry out certain actions — that could allow soldiers to control drones just by thinking about them. Like the government’s CRISPR-based radiation work, the idea is still theoretical.

Though these biological advancements are likely years away, they represent new and possibly scary possibilities for enhancement. Whether this research is being conducted in the United States or China, these programs raise concerns about how this technology will be used on our military members — and enemies — in the future.

Former staff writer at Medium, where I covered biotech, genetics, and Covid-19 for OneZero, Future Human, Elemental, and the Coronavirus Blog.

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