© Financial Times

This is an audio transcript of the FT News Briefing podcast episode: DIY gene editing

Marc Filippino
Good morning from the Financial Times. Today is Monday, October 4th, and this is your FT News Briefing.

[MUSIC PLAYING]

A war of words over the IMF’s managing director could come to a head this week at a top Deutsche Bank official tells the FT that good compliance can be painful for business. Plus, what do you get when you combine gene editing tools like CRISPR with YouTube? A whole bunch of biohackers.

Izabella Kaminska
If you think of the mad scientist in his garage, he’s kind of blowing himself up. Guys operate off grid because they just have a compulsion to do it.

Marc Filippino
Our Alphaville editor Izabella Kaminska met some amateur gene scientists and shares some of their concerns. I’m Marc Filippino, here’s the news you need to start your day.

[MUSIC PLAYING]

The board of the International Monetary Fund will meet this week to discuss allegations against the IMF’s Managing Director. Kristalina Georgieva has been accused of manipulating data to favour China while in her previous role at the World Bank. A report commissioned by the bank’s board found her responsible for falsifying scores in the 2018 edition of the bank’s influential Doing Business report so that China could move up in the rankings. Here’s the FT’s Jonathan Wheatley.

Jonathan Wheatley
It has been very, very widely followed. Governments put huge pressure on the World Bank every year to evaluate favourably their attempts to reform. It’s actually used an awful lot by foreign investors who are thinking of investing in a country. And if a country climbs up the rankings or schools very well, then it is viewed as a better investment prospect for direct investment. As people I’ve spoken to during the reporting for this story have said that billions of dollars hang on it.

Marc Filippino
Jonathan, what could this mean for the World Bank’s reputation? I mean, the investigation was done by a prominent law firm, WilmerHale, and that says a lot, right?

Jonathan Wheatley
Well, Marc there’s there’s a lot to say about that. But basically the implication, the suggestion actually the quite compelling evidence from the WilmerHale report is that those numbers were being manipulated. The big implication of that is you can’t trust World Bank data. And as the report suggests that Kristalina Georgieva was involved in that. If that’s true and I can’t stress enough, she absolutely denies it. But the noise that’s out there is that if that’s true, then can we trust numbers at the IMF? And certainly, I spoke to quite a few people at the IMF, serving members of IMF staff. Now, since this came out who are saying we feel that our work has been undermined.

Marc Filippino
So Jonathan, what are we talking about in terms of severity here? Could Georgieva lose her job? And you know, what would this mean more broadly for the IMF?

Jonathan Wheatley
Well, that’s the big question. I mean, that’s what everybody’s looking at. I mean, there have been several high profile statements of support. Kristalina Georgieva, many people would say, has had a fantastic pandemic. She has taken the IMF and kind of turned it into another development institution. Her critics would say that’s one thing. The WilmerHale report is a separate thing, and there we’re talking about governance. We’re talking about cooking the books. I quoted one senior economist in the private sector saying, You know, at the end of the day, you don’t cook the books. And if you do, you have no role in policymaking. And a lot of people are coming out of the woodwork and saying, I mean, just look at the comments under the stories that we’ve been publishing in the FT, saying that she has to go, that she should at least step aside while the investigation is ongoing. But no, she’s coming out fighting.

Marc Filippino
Jonathan Wheatley is the FT’s emerging markets correspondent. Thanks, Jonathan.

Jonathan Wheatley
You’re very welcome. Pleasure to talk to you.

[MUSIC PLAYING]

Marc Filippino
Deutsche Bank has severed relationships with a very small number of wealthy clients with criminal records. This follows the arrest of the late, disgraced financier Jeffrey Epstein. The bank’s chief administrative officer, Stefan Simon, told the FT that after Epstein’s arrest in 2019, Deutsche Bank conducted an internal analysis looking for, quote “other cases of clients who were onboarded in the past but should be viewed differently today”. Epstein was already a convicted sex offender when Deutsche Bank took him on as a client. Simon is overhauling the bank’s compliance. He stressed that banker mindset was the key to avoiding legal compliance risks. He told the FT that quote, “If in doubt, we need to say no to clients and transactions.”

[MUSIC PLAYING]

We have heard a lot about computer hackers right? Now, there’s a new phenomenon: biohackers. These are amateurs and academics who are using gene editing tools like CRISPR and self-made labs and at times on their own bodies. The FT’s Izabella Kaminska spoke to some of these garage gene scientists and joins me now. Hi, Izabella.

Izabella Kaminska
Hi.

Marc Filippino
Izabella, tell us a little bit about Paul Dabrowa, the amateur scientist you met. What kind of experiments is he doing and what motivates him to do this?

Izabella Kaminska
So he’s a really interesting character. He kind of reached out to me months and months ago trying to flag my attention to this growing problem of amateur scientists. He himself is the sort of jack of all trades, polymathic type, who is interested in a broad range of different disciplines, biology and microbiology and all this stuff. He’s entirely self-taught. And so he has been sort of telling me about how easy it is, you know, he does it just for fun. He likes to make beer glow, and it’s all really accessible these days because you can buy these kits off the internet. And he has been learning as a result, just in the spirit of trying to kind of I would call him more of like a penetration testing type of mindset if he can do it then anyone else can do it. And so that’s where his sort of compulsion came from, was just to sort of see if he himself could do these things.

Marc Filippino
And he contacted you not just to tell you all the things he could do, but to let you know about his concerns, even national security concerns. What are they?

Izabella Kaminska
So I think one of the biggest ones is just the fact that the cost of all the materials is falling and things like DNA synthesisers are really easy sort of to get hold of. Then once you’ve got one of those and the door is open to all sorts of experimentation. And so he was sort of taking me through how easy theoretically it is. You can sort of download a sequence pretty much, and in some ways, like you would download your photographs so you would upload the digital information to one of these service providers, who would then send you a sample of the sort of DNA-based information in a sort of vial, which could then be used in lab experiments. Now that is not a live virus, but it is the means by which you could end up producing a live virus if you have the know-how. Anyone who is sound of mind is not going to be doing these experiments, you know, in their kitchen without taking precautions. But if amateurs can do this, his concern is simply that somebody who is more bullheaded about it or has an agenda say a nefarious agenda and the means and the access to capital to get this done can definitely accomplish much greater things. And that really is the concern on the security side.

Marc Filippino
So, Izabella, scientists, amateur biohackers, they say they can be more innovative if they don’t have to deal with a bureaucracy that comes with securing funding. What do you make of that argument?

Izabella Kaminska
Well, I think I think you know what I’ve learnt from this whole process is that science is a compulsion. They are natural tinkerers and they will tinker with stuff irrespective of whether you say you shouldn’t or you shouldn’t. And this is really in the spirit of innovation and in the in the history of the great sort of scientists throughout the ages who have pushed, you know, humanity forwards. If you think of the mad scientist in his garage, he’s kind of blowing himself up or even sort of on the more scary side, like a like a Frankenstein-type figure. And if you are sort of free radical type, you’re not necessarily very good at following orders or putting in grant requests or, you know, dealing with a lot of bureaucracy. But the big difference is that I think while in the biological field, because of technologies like CRISPR, the access to some of the technology and to what they can achieve and the consequences of that and how the viruses they’re working with, whether they’re contained or not. The consequences are much, potentially much more fatal because, you know, if a scientist blows himself up in the lab, it’s a fairly contained accident. But with a pathogen, of course, as we all know now, the potential for it to spread, you know, in a chain reaction across the world is is is massive.

Marc Filippino
So going back to Paul Dabrowa does he have any idea about where this could lead and how biohacking should be controlled or managed?

Izabella Kaminska
Right, so there are different views on how to manage it because you don’t want to stifle the innovation. It’s so important that that continues to happen. And so Paul Dabrowa’s idea is that you should, you know, we need to effectively stop this capability from becoming a poor man’s nuke because that’s what it is. It has the potential to kill as many people as a nuclear weapon. But it’s simply the comparative cost is so much lower. Like, you know, to manage a nuclear submarine or a nuclear fleet. A nuclear arsenal is is a, you know, billion trillion dollar enterprise, right? Whereas to create a biosafety level three lab, you know, the costs are just much lower and could be done off grid. So he says the best way to to manage that is just to try and make the entire supply chain really expensive. And if you can like find choke points and control them, then hopefully you can manage the supply chain and at least make it far more expensive to create a lethal pathogen in a sort of amateur lab.

Marc Filippino
Izabella Kaminska is the FT’s Alphaville editor. Thanks, Izabella.

Izabella Kaminska
Thank you.

[MUSIC PLAYING]

Marc Filippino
You can read more on all of these stories at FT.com. This has been your daily FT News Briefing. Make sure you check back tomorrow for the latest business news.

This transcript has been automatically generated. If by any chance there is an error please send the details for a correction to: typo@ft.com. We will do our best to make the amendment as soon as possible.

Get alerts on Transcript when a new story is published

Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2021. All rights reserved.
Reuse this content (opens in new window) CommentsJump to comments section