Some scientists have proposed genetically modified (GM) mosquitoes as a solution to controlling malaria, a scourge that has been around for centuries and is spread by mosquitoes.
I am skeptical that this is the answer.
Through CRISPR technology, a gene that prevents procreation is inserted in the lab and is passed on to mosquitoes in the wild. In essence, it rapidly transmits a sterilizing mutation through other members of the mosquito’s species, eventually wiping out the insects.
Creating GM mosquitoes is a contentious topic. Supporters of the technology consider it a huge step forward in the war against mosquitoes and by extension, vector-borne diseases like malaria, dengue, yellow fever and Zika. Critics of the idea, however, say it is dangerous to manipulate the DNA of any animal, and that experimentation could bring disastrous consequences that are yet unknown.
In all of this debate, however, there have been few contributions to the discussion, if any, by Africans. Yet diseases like malaria have an enormous impact on the African continent, affecting about half a million people, mostly children under the age of 5 and pregnant women. It is therefore crucial to assess this issue from an African angle, especially as there are plans to release up to 10,000 genetically modified mosquitoes in a village in Burkina Faso, with other areas in Africa potentially to follow.
As a scientist, I am in absolute awe of the technology and think it a brilliant idea! It could lead to a reduction of mosquito populations in the exposed area. But as an African who lives on the continent and gets bitten by mosquitoes all the time, I have my concerns.
First, more studies need to be done on GM mosquitoes to ascertain safety and avoid unintended consequences before releasing them into the field. African countries do not have the infrastructure needed to regulate or solve any problem that may arise from this technology. The continent still struggles to control infectious diseases with an inefficient health system. Will the engineered organism upset the delicate balance of ecosystems, thereby causing new diseases to emerge or prompting already existing illnesses to spread?
Second, it is unethical to release such a technology without consulting or speaking to the actual residents.
International organizations can engage the governments of more developed countries and trust that the decisions made by officials have gone through rigorous checks; have involved the wider public; and have passed through months or years of expert committee review before a decision is reached. But this is not the case in a majority of African countries, which suffer from bad governance and a lack of transparency and where decisions are usually made in private meetings with officials who don’t listen to their citizens. This can be seen in the recent adoption of GMO foods by a few African countries despite outcry and opposition from the people.
Africans should be included in these discussions. They should be allowed to have a say concerning a technology that could affect them and generations yet unborn if something should go wrong. In fact, Africans should have been consulted before the mosquitoes were created in the first place.
Third, scientists just need to do better with being open and communicating their research to the public—most especially, the African public. There is a lot of distrust for science because of events in the past such as unethical and harmful clinical trials. Such distrust has affected polio eradication efforts in northern Nigeria, for example, and Ebola control in Guinea.
Finally, I think it is important for us to learn from the experience of other places where more conventional tools, including conventional vector control, have worked against malaria—most recently, in Sri Lanka, which has been certified as malaria-free by the World Health Organization without resorting to genetically modified mosquitoes. Even in the age of drug resistance, some countries have still managed to attain elimination status. Why should Africa be different?
While innovations in science have been important in controlling malaria in Africa, they should never be the only focus. Sanitary engineering; getting rid of mosquito breeding sites; and swamp drainage are some of the interventions that have helped in the past and have proven to be sustainable solutions.
Why spend billions of dollars on developing genetically modified insects when the money could be directed towards environmental engineering projects that hinder the ability of mosquitoes to breed in the first place? The latter is a long term and sustainable approach and should not be ignored if we are very serious about malaria elimination.