Environmental groups opposed to genetically modified organisms (GMOs) have been very influential for a considerable time and capable of raising large public protests. But the anti-GMO movement is now in decline as the EU and various influential environmental organizations begin to cautiously welcome selected genetically modified organisms.
The final nail in the anti-GMO coffin will likely be the spectacular success of genetic technology that has just developed several highly effective Covid-19 vaccines within the miraculously short one-year timeframe.
On January 10, 2020, Chinese scientists published the genome of a novel coronavirus that causes the disease, Sars-CoV-2, similar to the virus that caused severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS) in 2003.
But there were also some striking differences and so no one was immune. The development of rapidly spreading Sars-CoV-2 vaccines was the only hope of averting a deadly attack on public health, but the problem was that it takes an average of six to seven years to develop a new vaccine using traditional methods based on a weakened or killed Sars-CoV-2 Virus.
This is where smart new genetic techniques came to the rescue, aided by unprecedented international scientific collaboration, endless financial resources and an army of volunteers ready to participate in the trials. As of April 2020, 80 institutes and pharmaceutical companies were developing vaccines in 19 countries, mostly using genetic methods. It was expected that commercial vaccines would be available in early 2021. On January 4, 2021, the UK began public inoculations with the Oxford AstraZeneca vaccine.
Several highly effective vaccines including Pfizer-BioNTech, Moderna, AstraZeneca, Johnson & Johnson (Janssen) and Sputnik V are now available, each having progressed through all the correct phases of vaccine development in one year. The largest vaccination campaign in history is now underway – more than 1.94 billion doses have been administered in 176 countries, vaccinating 12.7% of the world’s population by early June.
Development powered by genetic technology of Covid-19 vaccines. Pfizer and Moderna vaccines are messenger RNA (mRNA) vaccines, based on RNA molecules carrying genetic information for the synthesis of the “spike protein” of the Sars-CoV-2 virus that allows this virus to enter in cells.
When mRNA, enclosed in an artificial membrane, is injected into your arm, the mRNA prompts cells near the injection site to make the spike protein. This causes your immune system to make antibodies and T cells which will inactivate the Sars-CoV-2 virus if it later infects you.
The AstraZeneca, Johnson and Johnson and Sputnik V vaccines are completely “genetically modified”.
They use a “viral vector,” an adenovirus – a type of virus that causes the common cold – to carry the vaccine into your cells. The adenovirus genome is stripped of any genes that could harm you, and the genetic sequence of the Sars-CoV-2 spike protein is then spliced into the adenovirus genome.
This genetically modified adenovirus contains the information necessary to make the spike protein Sars-CoV-2 in your cells, training your immune system as already described for mRNA vaccines.
For many years the European Union has opposed genetically modified organisms, but this anti-GMO stance has recently weakened, mainly because biotechnology techniques can help the EU achieve environmental sustainability goals. And when the Sars-CoV-2 virus appeared on the scene, the EU suspended some of its biotechnology regulations to speed up the development of Covid-19 vaccines.
Two powerful American environmental organizations, the Sierra Club and the Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS), have recently been cautious about certain genetically modified plants. American chestnut trees have been nearly wiped out by a deadly fungal infection and the Sierra Club has approved the release of a genetically modified “Darling 58” chestnut that is resistant to the fungal infection.
The UCS is increasingly concerned about the environmental effects of animal agriculture. He is impressed with the potential of plant-based “meats” to reduce these impacts and recently changed his stance against the plant-based “Impossible Burger” whose key ingredient is made using genetic engineering.
GMOs have an excellent safety record. Scientists who genetically improve animal and plant organisms work with extreme caution, knowing that releasing even a single genetically modified organism that causes environmental damage would be disastrous for their entire project.
The anti-GMO lobby acts mainly out of ideological conviction, distrusts science and exaggerates perceived “dangers”. But now it looks like their reign is almost over. Cautious general acceptance of GMOs will follow. Genetic modification has a lot to offer, as anyone who offers their arm to the vaccination needle can confirm.
- William Reville is professor emeritus of biochemistry at UCC