African resistance to genetically modified mosquitoes

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A not-for-profit research group has developed a mosquito that can kill off its own species by spreading a faulty gene. In Burkina Faso, the move towards genetic modification has unleashed unprecedented opposition.

At the start of the rainy season earlier this year – when mosquitoes multiply and malaria strikes – The Daily Telegraph reports that officials and journalists gathered in the small village of Bana, Burkina Faso. At their feet were cases containing thousands of male mosquitoes, genetically engineered to be sterile and fluorescent – so they can be easily recaptured for further study later. The cases were opened and a second later, the mosquitoes swarmed out.

The report says this was a landmark moment in the long history of malaria control as it was the first ever release of genetically-modified mosquitoes on the African continent. It was also the very first step in a 12-year experiment to reduce the population of one species of the insect that is responsible for most of the 4,000 malaria deaths in Burkina Faso every year.

Researchers from the Target Malaria consortium, a not-for-profit research group funded by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and various research institutions, have developed a mosquito in their laboratory that can kill off its own species by spreading a faulty gene. If it works in the wild, the technology – called gene drive – could help eliminate malaria where decades of efforts involving bed nets, repellents and insecticides have failed.

The report says this isn’t the first experiment Burkinabes have witnessed in the fight against one of Africa’s leading killers but it is certainly one of the most radical. Since malaria research started in Burkina Faso in the 1940s under French occupation, every major tool to prevent or treat the disease has been tested here.

But, the report says, the move towards genetic modification has unleashed unprecedented opposition in the landlocked West African country. In the summer of 2018, more than 1,000 people marched in the capital Ouagadougou against the use of genetically-modified organisms in the country, including the GM mosquitoes.

The UN considered a ban on gene drive last year but pulled back – instead ruling its use should be limited, to the consternation of both scientists (who support the technology) and conservationists (who don’t). Environmental groups from around the world warn that removing just one species of mosquito could disrupt the eco-system in unforeseeable ways. “We refuse to be guinea pigs,” said Ali Tapsoba, who represents the Citizens Collective for Agro-ecology, an umbrella group of more than 40 organisations, and one of the organisers of last year’s protest.

Critics are quoted in the report as saying that there is not enough proof that the technology works and the risks to health and the environment are too high while safer, cheaper methods such as recently-tested vaccines, and repellents are being pushed aside.

Gene drive – which would be rolled out in Burkina Faso in 2024 at the earliest if approved by national authorities – works by unleashing a mutated gene that spreads rapidly through the species. In this case, the mutated gene would cause Anopheles Gambiae mosquitoes to produce only male offspring, potentially eliminating the species in certain places. Once released, it can’t be stopped.

“In a country as poor as ours we will have gene-drive mosquitoes in the wild in a nearly-irreversible process. If it poses a health risk, what is our capacity to find a solution? Do we have the financial and human resources to deal with it? The answer is no,” Tapsoba said. The report says his group is preparing a lawsuit against the National Biosafety Agency of Burkina Faso, which approved the July release.

A plethora of tools are already in use against malaria, from conventional bed nets to preventive treatments to a repellent shea butter cream developed in the country. And while multi-drug resistant malaria parasites spreading in Southeast Asia have not yet reached sub-Saharan Africa, studies show a drop in effectiveness in some of the most common malaria treatments in Burkina Faso – from nearly 100% a decade ago to 90% today, said Adama Gansane, executive director of the National Centre for Research and Training on Malaria.

This is what led Abdoulaye Diabate, a researcher at the IRSS, to join the Target Malaria project. Since Diabate started researching the disease in the 1990s, resistance has spread to every part of his country, he says. He has also become aware of the limits of existing tools.

As the fight goes on, education may be as powerful a tool as futuristic, fluorescent lab-made mosquitoes. “You can’t only work on fighting mosquitoes,” says Jean-Bosco Ouedraogo, who in decades of his research career has seen every new tool against malaria outsmarted by nature. “Mosquitoes are super smart.”

The Daily Telegraph report

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