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A cautionary tale of experimenting with genetically modified mosquitoes in Uganda

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The dreaded mosquito

COMMENT | Barbara Ntambirweki | Last week the Ugandan media was awash with reports that a British firm, Oxitec, in partnership with Uganda Virus Research Institute (UVRI) is set to develop a technique for inserting a lethal gene into mosquitoes to combat malaria. While Uganda has one of the highest global burden of malaria cases; claiming many lives each year; there is no evidence or proof that genetically modified mosquitoes would contribute to tackling the current challenges in the fight against malaria.

The Uganda Virus Research Institute is pressing forward with “gene drive” technology which provides a way to rapidly, permanently, and genetically modify wild animals or plants. Gene drive organisms, are a genetically modified organism (GMO) designed to spread a genetic modification through entire populations of wild or farmed species, and are promoted as a ‘solution’ to pressing problems in the fields of public health, ecology and agriculture. The capacity of gene drives to spread and persist in the environment presents novel biosafety and socio-economic concerns for both people and biodiversity. Therefore, the idea that gene drive technologies will easily solve complex problems downplays the underlying cautionary tale of technological hubris that playing God with nature’s genetic code could lead to devastating consequences.

Several research projects in Africa are advancing in their experiments to develop genetically modified ‘gene drive’ mosquitoes to release into the environment as a public health intervention to combat malaria and some are already releasing GMO mosquitoes similar to those touted by Oxitec. In Africa, Burkina Faso, Ghana, Tanzania and Uganda have allowed experimentation towards gene drive in their countries where some of these are under the auspices of Target Malaria – a consortium of research institutions led by laboratories based at Imperial College in the United Kingdom funded by Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. In Uganda, Target Malaria has entered in partnership with the Uganda Virus Research Institute and has commenced entomological mosquito collections from field sites around Kalangala and Mukono Districts.

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Given the irreversible nature of this technology complex questions have arisen amongst independent scientists, regulators and others whether gene drives or GMO mosquito are relevant methods to combat malaria. Firstly, the use of gene drives raises serious concerns about the potential risks and irreversible impacts of a technology designed to spread in the wild without any ability to recall them once released into the environment. For the first time we are faced with unprecedented challenge where the genetic engineering technique’s potential ecological and health impacts cannot be adequately assessed without first deploying it.

Secondly, gene drives or other GMO techniques designed to suppress populations of mosquitoes may not perform as intended but instead result in unpredictable population dynamics where the temporary elimination is followed by resurgence of wild mosquitoes, or mixed populations of wild type and gene drive mosquitoes.

There are also risks of eliminating populations that may have unexpected beneficial roles in the environment such as the potential to spread the gene drive technology into non-target mosquito species that do not carry malaria, but may have other roles such as providing food sources for aquatic organisms. The effects of modifying whole populations are impossible to predict as there is limited knowledge about the complexities of ecological systems and interactions between organisms and environments.

Thirdly, gene drives are not confined to a particular country and have the potential to spread across territories and borders without difficulty. This creates complexities and uncertainties with regard to regulation of the technology and may lead to conflict. For example, what is the recourse if gene drives are released in Uganda and, say a neighboring country does not want them? It is not possible to keep an organism within a national boundary and therefore the need for precaution.

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In conclusion, fundamental questions remain regarding the risks. Concerns associated with gene drives and GMO insects are huge, with ecological, evolutionary resistance, health, ethical and social impacts and they need to be carefully considered by policy makers to fully embody the precautionary principle.

Recent global gains suggest malaria reduction can be achieved without gene drive or GMO technologies. Countries like Paraguay, Argentina, Algeria, Sri Lanka, China and most recently Cape Verde have recently eradicated malaria where interventions that focus on prevention, curative, surveillance, and control interventions are being deployed. There is no doubt that Uganda can follow this path if we focus on alternative interventions for the benefit and sake of future generations.

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The writer is a Lawyer/Advocate & Researcher and Activist.

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