The COVID-19 pandemic has placed public health and personal privacy on a collision course, as smartphone technology has completely rewritten the book on contact tracing.
It's not surprising that an autocratic regime like China would adopt such measures, but democracies such as Israel have taken a similar path.
The gold standard – patient interviews and detective work – had been in place for more than a century. It's been all but replaced by GPS data in smartphones, which allows contact tracing to occur not only virtually in real time, but with vastly more precision.
China has gone the furthest in using such tech to monitor and prevent the spread of the coronavirus. It developed an app called Health Code to determine which of its citizens are infected or at risk of becoming infected. It has assigned each individual a color code – red, yellow or green – and restricts their movement depending on their assignment. It has also leveraged its millions of public video cameras in conjunction with facial recognition tech to identify people in public who are not wearing masks.
It's not surprising that an autocratic regime like China would adopt such measures, but democracies such as Israel have taken a similar path. The national security agency Shin Bet this week began analyzing all personal cellphone data under emergency measures approved by the government. It texts individuals when it's determined they had been in contact with someone who had the coronavirus. In Spain and China, police have sent drones aloft searching for people violating stay-at-home orders. Commands to disperse can be issued through audio systems built into the aircraft. In the U.S., efforts are underway to lift federal restrictions on drones so that police can use them to prevent people from gathering.
The chief executive of a drone manufacturer in the U.S. aptly summed up the situation in an interview with the Financial Times: "It seems a little Orwellian, but this could save lives."
Epidemics and how they're surveilled often pose thorny dilemmas, according to Craig Klugman, a bioethicist and professor of health sciences at DePaul University in Chicago. "There's always a moral issue to contact tracing," he said, adding that the issue doesn't change by nation, only in the way it's resolved.
"Once certain privacy barriers have been breached, it can be difficult to roll them back again."
In China, there's little to no expectation for privacy, so their decision to take the most extreme measures makes sense to Klugman. "In China, the community comes first. In the U.S., individual rights come first," he said.
As the U.S. has scrambled to develop testing kits and manufacture ventilators to identify potential patients and treat them, individual rights have mostly not received any scrutiny. However, that could change in the coming weeks.
The American approach is also leaning toward using smartphone apps, but in a way that may preserve the privacy of users. Researchers at MIT have released a prototype known as Private Kit: Safe Paths. Patients diagnosed with the coronavirus can use the app to disclose their location trail for the prior 28 days to other users without releasing their specific identity. They also have the option of sharing the data with public health officials. But such an app would only be effective if there is a significant number of users.
Singapore is offering a similar app to its citizens known as TraceTogether, which uses both GPS and Bluetooth pings among users to trace potential encounters. It's being offered on a voluntary basis.
The Electronic Frontier Foundation, the leading nonprofit organization defending civil liberties in the digital world, said it is monitoring how these apps are developed and deployed. "Governments around the world are demanding new dragnet location surveillance powers to contain the COVID-19 outbreak," it said in a statement. "But before the public allows their governments to implement such systems, governments must explain to the public how these systems would be effective in stopping the spread of COVID-19. There's no questioning the need for far-reaching public health measures to meet this urgent challenge, but those measures must be scientifically rigorous, and based on the expertise of public health professionals."
Andrew Geronimo, director of the intellectual property venture clinic at the Case Western University School of Law, said that the U.S. government is currently in talks with Facebook, Google and other tech companies about using deidentified location data from smartphones to better monitor the progress of the outbreak. He was hesitant to endorse such a step.
"These companies may say that all of this data is anonymized," he said, "but studies have shown that it is difficult to fully anonymize data sets that contain so much information about us."
Beyond the technical issues, social attitudes may mount another challenge. Epic events such as 9/11 tend to loosen vigilance toward protecting privacy, according to Klugman and Geronimo. And as more people are sickened and hospitalized in the U.S. with COVID-19, Klugman believes more Americans will be willing to allow themselves to be tracked. "If that happens, there needs to be a time limitation," he said.
However, even if time limits are put in place, Geronimo believes it would lead to an even greater rollback of privacy during the next crisis.
"Once certain privacy barriers have been breached, it can be difficult to roll them back again," he warned. "And the prior incidents could always be used as a precedent – or as proof of concept."
In November 2020, messenger RNA catapulted into the public consciousness when the first COVID-19 vaccines were authorized for emergency use. Around the same time, an equally groundbreaking yet relatively unheralded application of mRNA technology was taking place at a London hospital.
Over the past two decades, there's been increasing interest in harnessing mRNA — molecules present in all of our cells that act like digital tape recorders, copying instructions from DNA in the cell nucleus and carrying them to the protein-making structures — to create a whole new class of therapeutics.
Scientists realized that artificial mRNA, designed in the lab, could be used to instruct our cells to produce certain antibodies, turning our bodies into vaccine-making factories, or to recognize and attack tumors. More recently, researchers recognized that mRNA could also be used to make another groundbreaking technology far more accessible to more patients: gene editing. The gene-editing tool CRISPR has generated plenty of hype for its potential to cure inherited diseases. But delivering CRISPR to the body is complicated and costly.
"Most gene editing involves taking cells out of the patient, treating them and then giving them back, which is an extremely expensive process," explains Drew Weissman, professor of medicine at the University of Pennsylvania, who was involved in developing the mRNA technology behind the COVID-19 vaccines.
But last November, a Massachusetts-based biotech company called Intellia Therapeutics showed it was possible to use mRNA to make the CRISPR system inside the body, eliminating the need to extract cells out of the body and edit them in a lab. Just as mRNA can instruct our cells to produce antibodies against a viral infection, it can also teach them to produce the two molecular components that make up CRISPR — a guide molecule and a cutting protein — to snip out a problem gene.
"The pandemic has really shown that not only are mRNA approaches viable, they could in certain circumstances be vastly superior to more traditional technologies."
In Intellia's London-based clinical trial, the company applied this for the first time in a patient with a rare inherited liver disease known as hereditary transthyretin amyloidosis with polyneuropathy. The disease causes a toxic protein to build up in a person's organs and is typically fatal. In a company press release, Intellia's president and CEO John Leonard swiftly declared that its mRNA-based CRISPR therapy could usher in a "new era of potential genome editing cures."
Weissman predicts that turning CRISPR into an affordable therapy will become the next major frontier for mRNA over the coming decade. His lab is currently working on an mRNA-based CRISPR treatment for sickle cell disease. More than 300,000 babies are born with sickle cell every year, mainly in lower income nations.
"There is a FDA-approved cure, but it involves taking the bone marrow out of the person, and then giving it back which is prohibitively expensive," he says. It also requires a patient to have a matched bone marrow done. "We give an intravenous injection of mRNA lipid nanoparticles that target CRISPR to the bone marrow stem cells in the patient, which is easy, and much less expensive."
Meanwhile, the overwhelming success of the COVID-19 vaccines has focused attention on other ways of using mRNA to bolster the immune system against threats ranging from other infectious diseases to cancer.
The practicality of mRNA vaccines – relatively small quantities are required to induce an antibody response – coupled with their adaptable design, mean companies like Moderna are now targeting pathogens like Zika, chikungunya and cytomegalovirus, or CMV, which previously considered commercially unviable for vaccine developers. This is because outbreaks have been relatively sporadic, and these viruses mainly affect people in low-income nations who can't afford to pay premium prices for a vaccine. But mRNA technology means that jabs could be produced on a flexible basis, when required, at relatively low cost.
Other scientists suggest that mRNA could even provide a means of developing a universal influenza vaccine, a goal that's long been the Holy Grail for vaccinologists around the world.
"The mRNA technology allows you to pick out bits of the virus that you want to induce immunity to," says Michael Mulqueen, vice president of business development at eTheRNA, a Belgium-based biotech that's developing mRNA-based vaccines for malaria and HIV, as well as various forms of cancer. "This means you can get the immune system primed to the bits of the virus that don't vary so much between strains. So you could actually have a single vaccine that protects against a whole raft of different variants of the same virus, offering more universal coverage."
Before mRNA became synonymous with vaccines, its biggest potential was for cancer treatments. BioNTech, the German biotech company that collaborated with Pfizer to develop the first authorized COVID-19 vaccine, was initially founded to utilize mRNA for personalized cancer treatments, and the company remains interested in cancers ranging from melanoma to breast cancer.
One of the major hurdles in treating cancer has been the fact that tumors can look very different from one person to the next. It's why conventional approaches, such as chemotherapy or radiation, don't work for every patient. But weaponizing mRNA against cancer primes the immune cells with the tumor's specific genetic sequence, training the patient's body to attack their own unique type of cancer.
"It means you're able to think about personalizing cancer treatments down to specific subgroups of patients," says Mulqueen. "For example, eTheRNA are developing a renal cell carcinoma treatment which will be targeted at around 20% of these patients, who have specific tumor types. We're hoping to take that to human trials next year, but the challenge is trying to identify the right patients for the treatment at an early stage."
Repairing Damaged mRNA
While hopes are high that mRNA could usher in new cancer treatments and make CRISPR more accessible, a growing number of companies are also exploring an alternative to gene editing, known as RNA editing.
In genetic disorders, the mRNA in certain cells is impaired due to a rogue gene defect, and so the body ceases to produce a particular vital protein. Instead of permanently deleting the problem gene with CRISPR, the idea behind RNA editing is to inject small pieces of synthetic mRNA to repair the existing mRNA. Scientists think this approach will allow normal protein production to resume.
Over the past few years, this approach has gathered momentum, as some researchers have recognized that it holds certain key advantages over CRISPR. Companies from Belgium to Japan are now looking at RNA editing to treat all kinds of disorders, from Huntingdon's disease, to amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, or ALS, and certain types of cancer.
"With RNA editing, you don't need to make any changes to the DNA," explains Daniel de Boer, CEO of Dutch biotech ProQR, which is looking to treat rare genetic disorders that cause blindness. "Changes to the DNA are permanent, so if something goes wrong, that may not be desirable. With RNA editing, it's a temporary change, so we dose patients with our drugs once or twice a year."
Last month, ProQR reported a landmark case study, in which a patient with a rare form of blindness called Leber congenital amaurosis, which affects the retina at the back of the eye, recovered vision after three months of treatment.
"We have seen that this RNA therapy restores vision in people that were completely blind for a year or so," says de Boer. "They were able to see again, to read again. We think there are a large number of other genetic diseases we could go after with this technology. There are thousands of different mutations that can lead to blindness, and we think this technology can target approximately 25% of them."
Ultimately, there's likely to be a role for both RNA editing and CRISPR, depending on the disease. "I think CRISPR is ideally suited for illnesses where you would like to permanently correct a genetic defect," says Joshua Rosenthal of the Marine Biology Laboratory in Chicago. "Whereas RNA editing could be used to treat things like pain, where you might want to reset a neural circuit temporarily over a shorter period of time."
Much of this research has been accelerated by the COVID-19 pandemic, which has played a major role in bringing mRNA to the forefront of people's minds as a therapeutic.
"The pandemic has really shown that not only are mRNA approaches viable, they could in certain circumstances be vastly superior to more traditional technologies," says Mulqueen. "In the future, I would not be surprised if many of the top pharma products are mRNA derived."
"Making Sense of Science" is a monthly podcast that features interviews with leading medical and scientific experts about the latest developments and the big ethical and societal questions they raise. This episode is hosted by science and biotech journalist Emily Mullin, summer editor of the award-winning science outlet Leaps.org.