Experts’ moral views on gene drive technologies: a qualitative interview study

N. de Graeff, K. R. Jongsma and A. L. Bredenoord,  BMC Medical Ethics,  22:25. 2021.

Background: Gene drive technologies (GDTs) promote the rapid spread of a particular genetic element within a population of non-human organisms. Potential applications of GDTs include the control of insect vectors, invasive species and agricultural pests. Whether, and if so, under what conditions, GDTs should be deployed is hotly debated. Although broad stances in this debate have been described, the convictions that inform the moral views of the experts shaping these technologies and related policies have not been examined in depth in the academic literature. Methods: In this qualitative study, we interviewed GDT experts (n = 33) from different disciplines to identify and better understand their moral views regarding these technologies. The pseudonymized transcripts were analyzed thematically. Results: The respondents’ moral views were principally influenced by their attitudes towards (1) the uncertainty related to GDTs; (2) the alternatives to which they should be compared; and (3) the role humans should have in nature. Respondents agreed there is epistemic uncertainty related to GDTs, identified similar knowledge gaps, and stressed the importance of realistic expectations in discussions on GDTs. They disagreed about whether uncertainty provides a rationale to refrain from field trials (‘risks of intervention’ stance) or to proceed with phased testing to obtain more knowledge given the harms of the status quo (‘risks of non-intervention’ stance). With regards to alternatives to tackle vector-borne diseases, invasive species and agricultural pests, respondents disagreed about which alternatives should be considered (un)feasible and (in)sufficiently explored: conventional strategies (‘downstream solutions’ stance) or systematic changes to health care, political and agricultural systems (‘upstream solutions’ stance). Finally, respondents held different views on nature and whether the use of GDTs is compatible with humans’ role in nature (‘interference’ stance) or not (‘non-interference stance’). Conclusions: This interview study helps to disentangle the debate on GDTs by providing a better understanding of the moral views of GDT experts. The obtained insights provide valuable stepping-stones for a constructive debate about underlying value conflicts and call attention to topics that deserve further (normative) reflection. Further evaluation of these issues can facilitate the debate on and responsible development of GDTs.

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