- The Release of Genetically Engineered Mosquitoes in Burkina Faso:Bioeconomy of Science, Public Engagement and Trust in Medicine
mosquitoes, malaria, Burkina Faso, GMO, biomedicine
Malaria, which is transmitted by mosquitoes, continues to be responsible for a significant number of disease episodes and childhood deaths on the African continent. A variety of mosquito control strategies are currently in [End Page 164] place, but since case numbers are rising again, and drug and insecticide tolerance slow down progress made, there has been a push for innovative strategies. In August 2018, the National Biosafety Agency of Burkina Faso granted approval for the release of a maximum of 10,000 male Anopheles mosquitoes in experimental trials conducted by the multi-country consortium Target Malaria. These mosquitoes are rendered infertile through genetic modification, namely through "re-programming" of endonucleases that "cut through essential genes," in this case, genes for fertility (Target Malaria 2019). The idea is that through the sterilization of male mosquitoes, the population of malaria-transmitting mosquitoes will be reduced, thereby decreasing the overall number of malaria infections.
However, Target Malaria admits that the more pertinent reason for these initial releases is to prepare for scientifically more ambitious releases of gene-drive mosquitoes that would be engineered to stop malaria transmission. These mosquitoes would then be labeled transgenic, as they are fertile and their genetic modification would be able to spread into wild populations. This solution is considered scientifically elegant by many, as it turns the disease vector into a "public health tool" (Beisel & Boëte 2013). However, in its elegance also lies its risk, as the genetic modification spreads and reproduces "naturally." These genetically-driven technologies are rapidly progressing, but at the moment they are not yet ready for field trials.
As of July 1, 2019, genetically sterilized mosquitoes have begun to be released in two small villages in northwest Burkina Faso. This intervention is the first of its kind on the African continent, although genetically engineered eggs have been imported since 2016 to laboratories of the Institut de Recherche en Sciences de la Santé (IRSS) in Bobo-Dioulasso. These mosquitoes were developed at Imperial College London. The consortium Target Malaria, which has developed the genetically modified (GM) mosquito and is tasked with their release, has been funded by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation since 2005 (USD35 million) and by the Open Philanthropy Project (funded mainly by contributions from the co-founder of Facebook and Asana) since 2017 (USD17.5 million) (Dunning 2017).
Regulatory approval was preceded by some small-scale protests, both internationally (e.g., The African Centre for Biodiversity 2018), and regionally, by the Coalition pour la protection du patrimoine génétique africain (COPAGEN) and Terre à Vie. This program was discussed at the UN conference of the Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD) in November 2018. The Convention was responsible for developing the Cartagena Protocol, an international treaty governing the movements of living engineered organisms, which came into force in 2003. At the 2018 conference, non-governmental organizations and activists tabled a proposal for a moratorium on the release of gene-drive organisms, which was ultimately rejected. While the planned release does not involve gene-drive organisms, it was nevertheless the trigger for the proposed moratorium. In response, over one hundred scientists signed an open letter opposing this initiative (Outreach Network for Gene Drive Research 2018). [End Page 165]
In this commentary we critically assess the current release of GM mosquitoes in Burkina Faso. While wholeheartedly supportive of innovative approaches to malaria control, we argue that the potential and risks of genetically-engineered mosquitoes need to be understood in relation to funding for other malaria control interventions and the underlying bioeconomy of science and ecological dynamics of malaria, as well as the public engagement process and broader dynamics of trust in medicine in Africa.
Science and the bioeconomy of transgenic mosquitoes
While the program in Burkina Faso is the first release of engineered malaria-transmitting Anopheles mosquitoes and the first to occur on the African continent, it is not the first release of GM mosquitoes. Engineered Aedes aegypti mosquitoes transmitting dengue and Zika were first released in 2009, when an...