'Does intrinsically good and bad technology exist?' Bayer CEO says no: Davos 2020

Bayer CEO Werner Baumann called for greater transparency from companies working on gene-editing technology. (Bayer)

Bayer CEO Werner Baumann highlighted “less and less trust in society for advances in technology” as a hurdle for pharma companies working on gene editing during a panel on genetic modification and engineering that took place at the World Economic Forum meeting in Davos, Switzerland. 

Baumann’s comments came after the panelists discussed He Jiankui, the Chinese scientist who used CRISPR to create the world’s first gene-edited babies and faced international furor over the ethics of the procedure.  

“It was a black mark on the entire field of science because it was done in this secretive way,” said Kevin Esvelt, Ph.D., a professor at MIT, during the session, titled “When humankind overrides evolution.” Beth Shapiro, D.Phil, of the University of California, Santa Cruz also joined the panel, while Magdalena Skipper, Ph.D., the editor-in-chief of Nature, moderated.   

Baumann asked: “Does intrinsically good and bad technology exist? … I believe that’s not the case. It’s very much the question of how you put it to use.” 

RELATED: CRISPR baby scientist He Jiankui sentenced to 3 years in prison

He called for “guard rails,” or regulations, to guide how academic teams and companies put gene-editing technology to use, but also on these players to "create absolute and ultimate transparency” around these new technologies when communicating with the public. 

"The only way to get beyond it [public distrust of new technology] is we do a better job in terms of explaining what we are doing... where the right lines are, where we actively solicit regulators and broader societal discussion in terms of what it is we should and should not do,” Baumann said. 

This includes opening up the “black box” that is the regulatory process behind the creation and approval of new gene-editing treatments, and “inviting people in.” 

“Making it a participative process is better because you create ownership with the people that are ultimately benefiting from the things we are doing,” he said. 

The last piece of the puzzle, Baumann said, would be having “more courageous politicians" who help, rather than hinder, progress. 

“Many, many times, they know better, but they don’t stand by the stuff that they know, particularly in the regulatory area,” he said. “I’ve seen it happen in Europe... where members of government tell me, ‘we know that the technology is good, but you cannot expect me to say it because that is bad for my next election,’ and they go against their own regulators.” 

“What I ask for is to have more brave and courageous politicians out there that stand for the right thing,” he said.