COVID-19: Examining the role of synthetic biology in a global pandemic

Imagine the horror of living in the time of Black Death which plagued the world in the mid-1300s, where millions of people died helplessly. Luckily, that ghastly period in humanity’s long history is now a bygone era. In this living world, science has never been more advanced than it is today; and with the current scientific advancements, certainly more lives could be saved. Synthetic biology (SynBio), an emerging scientific landscape, provides a unique platform for researchers to create artificial biological cells, organisms, pathways, and processes.

Encyclopaedia Britannica, moreover, explained synthetic biology as a field of research that incorporates different scientific techniques and protocols to create synthetic biological systems that may benefit humanity and Earth. Through SynBio, DNA sequences and protein pathways of cells can be modified to increase the production of pharmaceutical drugs, for example. In the past, multiple years were needed to develop and manufacture vaccines; but, with SynBio providing ease and less complex techniques in reading and writing DNA and the “snip and combine” and “plug and play” technologies, development and manufacturing of vaccines, in particular, will be faster. 

In the headlines of global news, SARS-CoV-2, a novel coronavirus strain, stunned the world with its rapid spread around the globe, leaving most humans in distraught and economies crashing.

With the present-day society grappling with a global pandemic, Synthetic Biology is gaining more prominence, with top scientists racing against time in developing a vaccine and an antiviral drug that would help prevent the spread of and cure people with COVID-19 disease.

Knowing all of this, the question of its significance in the current global situation pops in mind. How big of a role does synthetic biology play in finding solutions to scientific problems, especially during global pandemics?

Recently, a prominent system  in SynBio has found its way in the battle against COVID-19. CRISPR, a powerful gene-editing technique which allows easy alteration of DNA sequences and modification of gene functions, will likely change the world as described in an article of NewScientist

A number of companies and academic research groups have been using CRISPR technology to evaluate who are infected with the novel coronavirus. Last May 2020, C&EN and NATURE reported that Sherlock Biosciences, a biotechnology company founded by 9 Engineering Biology pioneers, was granted an emergency use authorization (EUA) by the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) on their COVID-19 diagnostic assay. The granted EUA allows the company to make the availability of tests and drugs quicker than normal in a public-health emergency. 

Last July, Sherlock Biosciences partnered with bix health - the fastest molecular platform for Clamydia & Gonorrehea (CT/NG) test, which is cleared by the FDA. According to SynbioBeta, this global strategic partnership aims to combine SHERLOCK’s CRISPR technology with bix health’s binx io diagnostic platform in the creation of a strongly built, yet uncomplicated and fast diagnostic test. 

Furthermore, during the Virtual Regeneron ISEF 2020’s session, The Role of CRISPR and COVID-19 last May 19, Science News’ Senior Writer and Molecular Biology Reporter Tina Hesman Saey interviewed Feng Zhang, one of the co-founders and the chair of the advisory board of Sherlock Biosciences and also a well-known scientist for his contribution in the development of CRISPR-Cas9 systems. As stated in a blog article of Society for Science & The Public, Zhang shared in the session that CRISPR can be used as a diagnostic tool; and an example of this is the rapid CRISPR-based diagnostic test developed by Zhang and his collaborators at Sherlock Biosciences. He also pointed out two more functions of CRISPR in the battle against COVID-19 disease. First, the utilization of CRISPR technique through activation or inactivation of various genes that leads to the detection of anchors for the coronavirus. This helps in better understanding the process of how coronavirus can infect and damage cells. For the second function, he mentioned that CRISPR can also serve as a therapeutic and that there are already researchers working on how the powerful gene-editing technique can be put into action in the direct elimination of the virus. 

With all this in mind, there are two sides to the story. CRISPR and its use for COVID-19 treatments, rapid testing, and vaccine developments provide powerful tools with which we can use to change the course of the current pandemic; and the ethical considerations on using this course-changing scientific technique. There are numerous advantages of using gene editing facilitated by CRISPR: developing more efficient test kits, editing the human genome to make people unsusceptible to the virus entirely, and understanding the ideology of the virus, as mentioned above. The ethical concerns faced by gene editing and its role in COVID-19 prevention must be addressed and acknowledged before the progress that has been made in the lab can translate into the progress being made in the real world.

Prominent ethical issues associated with gene editing are equal access disparity, lack of consent, and general safety. These new technologies must be proven to be safe before they can be considered for review and then as a treatment option.  According to the National Human Genome Research Institute, there is a fear that using genome-editing and proving its effectiveness will lead to a slippery slope of it being used for non-therapeutic reasons, even during a pandemic. Bioethicists are of the opinion that gene-editing can and be used to help scientists better understand COVID and its cause, SARS-CoV-2; and for developing better testing kits and treatments, all of which must still follow policy and regulation and should be managed very strictly.

With regards to equal access disparity, there could be a divide created between those who can afford these CRISPR-enhanced technologies and innovations, and those who cannot. Scientists, researchers, and companies alike need to have an open dialogue about what they are making, using, and who their target market is. These discussions need to extend to scientific governing bodies, and ethical and political bodies as well.

What stands out to bioethicists is the human factor and that involvement with gene editing and COVID-19. One of the forms of gene editing in humans, other than somatic cell editing, is germline editing. This has the potential to change the genome of many generations to come, and it could be uncontrollable. SynBio’s new technology could be misused in the aforementioned ways, using the same technology to target and edit genes which will lead to nontherapeutic enchantments or with disrupting the germline.

According to the Center for Genetics and Society, over 40 countries forbid this type of gene editing. This is a red line that no scientist can cross at this time. Unfortunately, one did - He Jiankui. He is currently in prison for violating ethical, and scientific norms, amongst other things (if you want to know more, read SynthEthics’ blog article:

We need to remember that ethical innovation and access to these innovations are deserved to be enjoyed and used by all. From a philosophical perspective, these are all rooted in human rights.

In the wake of a global pandemic, advanced scientific interventions and innovations are put in the spotlight, hoping to save us all from the health and economic strains brought by the novel coronavirus. SynBio clearly plays a huge role in providing solutions, but ethical considerations should still be placed. While we consider the advancement and safety of today's humanity, we should also greatly consider how actions made today can affect the future generations. 

  • What other advancements have you heard of about "snip and snap" and "plug and play" technologies of SynBio?

  • Aside from the mentioned prominent ethical issues of gene editing in the blog article, can you think of additional aspects of ethical consideration that should be put into discussion?

  • Do you think it is worth taking the risk  on SynBio despite its unknown effect on future filial generations? 

Share your thoughts with us through the comments section below!

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7. SynbioBeta. Sherlock Biosciences and binx health Announce Global Partnership to Develop First CRISPR-based Point-of-care Test for COVID-19. Retrieved from:

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