Russian President Vladimir Putin is reportedly horrified that human gene editing will result in someone developing a weapon capable of wiping out entire populations and demographics at once.
Insiders at Russia's genetics research programs say that idea is far-fetched, according the investigative news outlet Meduza. But military and security concerns are at the front of Putin's mind as the country launches its several-billion-dollar genetics research program after avoiding the field entirely for years, so the Russian leader is working to consolidate control of the country's genetics research in order to control its future.
"We ought to sit down and work out some common rules in this extremely sensitive area," Putin warned in a 2018 speech.
But just one year later, he approved $1.7 billion in genetics research funding, Meduza reports, and twice as much money is likely coming soon.
Putin's fear of gene-hacking warfare is so pressing that experts suggest he agreed to fund the country's ambitious genetics research program primarily because scientists added the word "security" to the list of applications in their proposal, according to Meduza. Later, the same researchers joked in private that the Russian President was probably imagining developing or defending against weaponry they believe is not possible to develop.
Those "security" applications were actually geared toward protecting Russia from dangerous diseases like SARS and Ebola — the COVID-19 pandemic hadn't even erupted yet — and to build up a robust genetics research program in Russia independent from the global research community.
"In this part [of the proposal], they outlined a plan to ensure technological independence — basically, security in a broader sense," a molecular biologist at Moscow's Engelhardt Institute named Dmitry Kuprash told Meduza. "We need to be able to manufacture our own chemical agents and equipment and safeguard Russia’s genetic technologies, in case it all goes sideways and we’re totally cut off by sanctions."
Even though a "gene weapon" like the one that has Putin so concerned may be completely impossible and is certainly out of reach of today's tech, it sounds as though his fear gave rise to a formidable and ambitious genetic research program that will definitely be worth keeping an eye on as gene editing technology continues to develop.