by Arista Jhanjee
The 2018 World Malaria Report, released by the World Health Organization, revealed that progress in the fight against malaria is under threat. But continued malaria control efforts will rely on both techniques we know are effective, as well as new technology and innovation in the areas of mosquito control, prevention, diagnostics, and treatment.
One innovation, which targets mosquitoes, relies on gene drives, which pass genes from one generation of a population to the next at a significantly higher rate than other forms of genetic information. The process ensures that certain traits quickly and permanently become widespread. Scientists are currently involved in researching gene drives that change the genetic code of mosquitos so that they are unable to reproduce or transmit the malaria parasite effectively.
It’s early days, but this is big news! Research efforts of this kind are being conducted by Target Malaria, a consortium that brings together scientists and experts from institutions in Africa, North America, and Europe. The nonprofit coalition works to decrease numbers of malaria-transmitting female mosquitos by researching gene drives for populations of three mosquito species.
Target Malaria recently initiated a field test that will examine the effects of releasing 10,000 of genetically engineered, sterile male mosquitos in Burkina Faso.
While we know the importance of innovation in the fight to end malaria, there are still some ethical concerns and broader controversy surrounding malaria-focused gene drive research. Organizations and stakeholders that work on issues like environmental conservation, technological development, and human rights have voiced concerns regarding the field test and gene drive innovations for malaria more generally.
At the 2018 UN Biodiversity Conference, which brought together both governmental and non-governmental stakeholders, it was decided that gene drive research can continue, as long as it meets agreed upon ethical and scientific requirements.
While research on gene drives is promising, it will be crucial that ethical and scientific concerns are heard. But as long as people are dying from mosquito bites, we must encourage research and development of new ways to end malaria for good!