GM mozzies could bite off more than we can shoo
Watchdogs fear possible negative effects of release of ‘nonbiting’ mosquitoes into Africa’s malaria areas
The world’s deadliest insect, the mosquito, may have finally met its match – a genetically-modified version of itself.
But will the GM variety be friend or foe? And is it safe to release a GM insect into the wild without knowing how far it will spread, or what the long-term effects will be?
An SA environmental watchdog group this week slammed the planned rollout of GM mosquitoes as premature and potentially dangerous. The African Centre for Biodiversity (ACB) says there are insufficient environmental risk assessments to justify releasing GM mosquitoes into the wild.
The ACB has highlighted the imminent release of GM mosquitoes in Burkina Faso as a precursor to a larger GM mosquito rollout. Scientists involved in the Burkina Faso project, led by Target Malaria, hope to test biosafety protocols by releasing sterile “nonbiting” GM male mosquitoes into the wild. The trial is seen as a precursor to a rollout aimed specifically at combating the spread of malaria by eradicating mosquitoes – by tricking females into mating with sterile GM males.
SA scientists are also experimenting with sterile mosquitoes at the National Institute of Communicable Diseases (NICD) campus in eastern Johannesburg.
The use of GM technology has already been tested, to good effect, at several locations worldwide. A recent trial, in Brazil, found that genetically-modified sterile males reduced mosquito larvae of the species that spreads the Zika virus – also by more than 80%.
However, while attractive in principle, the plan could have major negative unforeseen consequences, some watchdog groups say. The ACB has also raised specific concerns about the Burkina Faso project, where it says some GM “biting” (female) mosquitoes would inadvertently be released during the initial project phase.
In addition, some project participants, local villages in the “release” area, would receive financial incentives to collect mosquitoes found on their bodies, the ACB said.
“The GM mosquitoes have no public-health benefit and are meant to ‘test’ biosafety systems and prepare the way for the future release of gene-drive mosquitoes,” the ACB said in their statement.
“In the meanwhile, research is already taking place that pays volunteers to expose themselves to wild-type mosquitoes for paltry sums [about $4.20 per night for six hours] increasing risk of malaria exposure to themselves and others.”
ACB director Mariam Mayet said the gene technology involved was still in its infancy: “The long-term impacts on the mosquito populations (the disease vectors) and human health, as well as their potential ecological impacts, are completely unknown,” Mayet said.
“It is also clear that once released, the technology cannot be recalled due to its aggressive nature, which overrides natural inheritance patterns. Of course, mosquitoes will also not respect borders.”
Mayet told Times Select the Target Malaria project, which enjoys the financial support of the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, had yet to secure the consent of all African countries. “It is putting all of us at risk because it is a transboundary issue,” Mayet said.
“There is the possibility of exacerbating a current public healthcare crisis. What this also does is deflect public funding to ‘technofixes’ and away from addressing systemic problems,” she said.
In their statement, the ACB also slammed the African Union for endorsing the GM programme across its member states. This follows the release of an AU report earlier this year, which the ACB says preempts the outcome of a United Nations Convention on Biodiversity stakeholder meeting later this month in Egypt.
Of particular concern to the ACB is “gene-drive” technology that aims to spread genetically engineered traits through an entire population of plants or animals. “The AU report endorsing gene-drive applied research and potential deployment for malaria eradication has emerged in the absence of any agreed international governance standards for the release of the mosquitoes into the environment,” the ACB said in its statement.
“The AU has also been deaf to any form of civil society concerns or debate, despite the fact that this technology cannot be recalled once it is deployed,” the ACB said.
Delphine Thizy, Target Malaria stakeholder engagement manager, said a Burkinabè research institution involved in the Burkina Faso study had completed all the necessary risk assessments and public consultations as per national regulations.
She said while the ultimate aim was to use gene drive technology to release mosquitoes that could contribute to the elimination off malaria, the initial phase – expected to being within the next few months – was intended to better understand both how the sterile male mosquitoes behaved, and the regulatory framework within which the future rollout would operate. She said the project carried minimal risk due to the mosquities being sterile, and the fact that the percentage of female mosquitoes inadvertently released would only be 0.5%.
Thizy said the male mosquitoes “are sterile and genetically edited to be so through a similar technique as to what will be done for subsequent (project) phases – but this time resulting in full sterility”.
She said scientists were only targeting three closely related species out of around 800 known species of mosquito in Africa. “We have started a study in Ghana to look in more detail at their ecological role,” she said, adding that each programme phase would have its own risk assessment.
She said the technique used by project participants to catch mosquitoes had World Health Organisation approval, and the project had also been scrutinised by a Burkinabè and a UK-based ethics committee.
The AU’s implementing agency, Nepad, this week confirmed the AU’s high-level panel on emerging technologies had compiled a report “to advise the AU on technologies on the horizon with potential for Africa’s socioeconomic development”. Responding to Times Select queries, Nepad said the panel had considered three promising new technologies, including “Gene Drives for Malaria Control and Elimination in Africa”. “The panel has made its recommendations on the three technologies taking into account capacity strengthening needs, regulatory and ethical considerations and requirements for domestic and international investment,” Nepad said.
“It has further argued that Africa cannot afford to play ‘wait and see’ in putting together regulatory requirements for technologies that are on the horizon, but should be actively involved and come up with harmonised policies, regulations, guidelines and standard operating procedures taking advantage of its regional integration agenda.
“They are not a prescription of technology deployment but rather providing recommendations as to how Africa should play an active role in the development and regulation of emerging technologies,” Nepad said. But technology that enables species extinction needs to be introduced with the utmost caution – and not before stringent risk assessments, according to Mayet.
“It is the first time you are looking at a technology that could cause the extinction of wildlife [species],” she said, adding the technology, in the wrong hands, could have hugely negative consequences.
“They have successfully eradicated mozzies in other parts of the world where they have addressed the problem in a more holistic way,” Mayet said.