•The Gates Foundation-funded Target Malaria project aims to release gene drive mosquitoes – which will not produce female offspring – in Africa, starting with Burkina Faso, by 2024.
•Head of NBA Dr Roy Mugiira assured Kenya already has enough capacity to monitor the impact of genetically modified organisms on its biodiversity.
Suppose you want to destroy your evil neighbour by ensuring no one from that family ever produces normal babies. Impossible?
Well, scientists have had this ability since 2015, creating an apocalypse mosquito with a gene that could one day wipe out the entire species.
The genetically engineered male mosquitoes carry a gene that ensures that eggs from any female they mate with only produce male offspring. This trait is “self-sustaining” meaning it can be carried over for many generations.
The idea is to eventually wipe out mosquitoes and finally bring an end to malaria, the deadly disease which sickens 3.5 million Kenyans every year, killing 10,000 of them, according to the Ministry of Health.
Such mosquitoes, classified as Living Modified Organisms (LMOs) have already been created in some laboratories around the world. But they were never released anywhere because of opposition from anti-GM scientists and activists who warned they could mutate into something more devastating or contaminate the genetic makeup of other insects.
Dr Roy Mugiira, the CEO of Kenya’s National Biosafety Authority, told the Star that groups opposing gene editing have always tried to delay technology adoption. Dr Mugiira is one of the experts attending the ongoing United Nations COP15 talks in Montreal, Canada.
“In fact, in previous discussions (2018), they proposed a moratorium, which was unacceptable because science is science. We cannot put a moratorium on science. And therefore it was negotiated that a specific guidance document is developed for risk assessment of gene drive mosquitoes. So that has gone through,” he said.
This technology – called gene drive – is already recognised in the Cartagena Protocol on Biosafety, which is part of the UN Convention on Biological Diversity. Kenya signed the Cartagena Protocol in 2000 and ratified it in 2003, the year it came into force.
But the universal guidelines to guide the release of these organisms into the environment were never developed.
However, gene-altered mosquitoes could now be released in Africa soon.
This is after delegates at the ongoing UN Convention on Biological Diversity talks (COP15) formed a team to develop rules to guide the release of these mosquitoes into the wild.
What’s changed in Montreal?
In May this year, a study co-authored by Willy Tonui, head of Nairobi-based consulting firm Environmental Health Safety, explained that gene drive mosquitoes are designed to disperse beyond immediate release locations and persist for many years.
Dr Tonui is the immediate former head of the National Biosafety Authority and is a Kenyan negotiator in Montreal.
“Therefore, before such gene drives could be considered for field release, potential impacts from the intervention, including legal issues, socioeconomic effects and biosafety (e.g. risks to human health and the environment), must first be identified, assessed and, where appropriate, managed,” said the study, published in Malaria Journal.
Although the gene drive process remains controversial, the enthusiasm for it has grown.
Some delegates from countries supporting the technology this week requested that the guidance being developed for mosquitoes should be expanded to cover other organisms.
However, Dr Mugiira told the Star this request came too late and because it is a sensitive topic, there was no desire to open it for more debate.
“The consensus now is that let us have the Contact Group develop a guidance document for gene drive mosquitoes, and then the same can be updated to be applied to other organisms. So this will be like giving guidance on how they can be released, how to conduct a risk assessment on that particular technology in that particular organism,” he added.
But despite the immense possibilities that gene drive offers, it also presents possible nightmare consequences.
Last Friday, scientists and NGOs affiliated with Pollinis, a bees conservation group based in France, wrote a statement asking nations at the ongoing UN biodiversity talks in Montreal to stop the technology.
The scientists argued that gene-edited organisms could become invasive, mutate into something more dangerous or contaminate related organisms.
“As most applications are still in the stage of mathematical modelling, any release would be premature and would put entire ecosystems at risk,” they said in their statement, urging countries to adopt the precautionary principle.
There are several gaps that still need to be addressed when it comes to gene drive technology.
Currently, the use of genetically modified organisms for vector control is impacted by multilateral processes at the CBD and the World Health Organisation (WHO) but the bodies have parallel approaches – and will need to collaborate on a shared intersectoral framework.
“WHO has issued a guidance for the development of genetically modified mosquitoes for disease control ( WHO/TDR & FNIH, 2014), and the modified mosquitoes are subject to the provision of the CBD and must undergo regulatory evaluations and receive regulatory approval at national level before being released outside of a laboratory,” says a 2020 Wellcome Open journal article on gene drive policies.
Dr Mugiira assured Kenya already has enough capacity to monitor the impact of genetically modified organisms on its biodiversity.
“Our biosafety framework is intact. We operate with eight other regulatory agencies and therefore if there are matters of environment we work with NEMA (National Environment Management Authority); matters animal we work with the Department of Veterinary Services and matters health with the public health department,” he said.
“We also work with the Pest Control Products Board, Kenya Industrial Property Institute and with the Kenya Bureau of Standards.”
Once the release rules are finalised and accepted by all members of the UN CBD, it will not take long to have gene-edited mosquitoes in the environment.
The Gates Foundation-funded Target Malaria project aims to release gene drive mosquitoes – which will not produce female offspring – in Africa, starting with Burkina Faso, by 2024.
This story was produced as part of the 2022 CBD COP15 Fellowship organised by Internews’ Earth Journalism Network.