WHO director-general Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus confirmed the move at a news conference earlier this week, according to reports by Reuters and AP.
It follows unverified claims made by Chinese scientist He Jiankui that he had used gene-editing technology to alter the DNA of two new babies in China. The Chinese government has subsequently suspended research into human gene editing.
"Gene editing may have unintended consequences, this is uncharted water and it has to be taken seriously," Tedros reportedly said. "WHO is putting together experts. We will work with member states to do everything we can to make sure of all issues – be it ethical, social, safety – before any manipulation is done."
"We are talking about human beings, editing should not harm the welfare of the future person… We have to be very careful, the working group will do that with all openness and transparency," he said.
According to Tedros, the working group should begin by asking whether human gene editing is something medical science should even consider.
"We have a big part of our population who say, ‘don’t touch’," said Tedros.
Asawari Churi, a member of the intellectual property law and life sciences teams at Pinsent Masons, the law firm behind Out-Law.com and a former research scientist in molecular biology, has called for international rules to govern the use of gene-editing technologies, such as CRISPR. She welcomed the move by the WHO to examine the issue and said she hopes it leads to the development of "global ground rules for human gene-editing".
When news of He's claims emerged, Churi described them as "a very worrying development", and said the experiment would have been unlikely to have been approved anywhere in Europe at the present time.
"It is easy to see how gene editing technologies can be used to potentially alter the genetic makeup of the human race," Churi said. "CRISPR is of particular concern due to its efficiency and ease of use. There is currently no internationally agreed-upon regulatory framework governing the use of gene editing technologies. [He's] study strongly emphasises the need to have one in place as soon as possible."