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Hold the GMO Mosquitoes

Technology Review reported yesterday that the United Nations is considering a ban on field testing gene drives, a development that has concerned some researchers who had hoped to use the technology to stop the spread of malaria. 

But in an Observations blog in Scientific American this week, Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health fellow and molecular geneticist Ify Aniebo argues that there are less dramatic ways to stop the spread of malaria in Africa than unleashing genetically modified mosquitoes on the continent. 

Aniebo, whose research focus is malaria drug resistance, says that while proponents and critics of gene drives argue back and forth about the merits and disadvantages of the technology, "there have been few contributions to the discussion, if any, by Africans." Diseases like malaria affect about 500,000, mostly children under the age of five and pregnant women, every year in Africa. Aniebo argues that it's therefore "crucial" to get the African viewpoint before GM mosquitoes are unleashed on villages in any country on that continent.

"As a scientist, I am in absolute awe of the technology and think it a brilliant idea!" she writes. "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."

For one thing, more studies need to be done to ascertain the safety and possible unintended consequences of such gene drives, Aniebo notes, particularly as many African countries don't have the infrastructure needed to regulate or solve new problem that may arise. 

Second, she adds, it would be unethical to release such a technology without consulting the actual residents who would be affected. "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," she writes.

Also, Aniebo argues, scientists generally need to be more open and communicative about their research to the public, especially in Africa where is a lot of distrust for science because of past events such as unethical and harmful clinical trials. 

And finally, while scientific innovations are certainly part of solution, Aniebo says, controlling malaria in Africa will also happen through sanitary engineering, getting rid of mosquito breeding sites, and swamp drainage. These types of interventions have worked before and must continue. 

"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?" she asks. "The latter is a long term and sustainable approach and should not be ignored if we are very serious about malaria elimination."