Online-Discussion: Gene Drives - Protecting People and Nature through Genetic Extermination?

 

Ricarda Steinbrecher, geneticist and board member of the European Network for Scientists for Social and Environmental Responsibility (ENSSER), emphasized that it is difficult or even impossible to make reliable predictions about the effects of a future application of Gene Drives, especially at the current time. After all, organisms are released which then independently carry out the genetic modifications in each generation. "Mistakes can be made every time. Every time, something else can be added." To ensure the preservation of biodiversity, new technologies such as Gene Drives must be looked at very closely to ensure that they do not pose any risks to our ecosystems. This is why she strongly advocated the precautionary principle during the international negotiations on the regulation of gene drive technology at the UN Convention on Biological Diversity. As a long-standing scientific advisor and participant in expert groups within the UN Convention on Biological Diversity, she reported that there is a strong influence of lobby groups on these expert bodies: For example, the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, one of the main financiers of the technology, had invested 1.6 million dollars in a PR agency to increase the acceptance of Gene Drives. She concluded: "The pressure to implement this technology is not commensurate with the risk."

Ali Tapsoba de Goamma, human rights and environmental activist from Burkina Faso and spokesperson for a civil society association of 40 organizations for agroecology and against Gene Drives (CCAE), reported that since 2012, the project Target Malaria has been preparing to decimate malaria-transmitting mosquitoes in Burkina Faso by means of Gene Drives. In 2019, the first field tests with genetically modified male mosquitoes that are not capable of reproducing took place, but not any Gene Drive Organisms have been released yet. Ali Tapsoba de Goamma criticized that Target Malaria had obtained the consent of the government and village leaders for these tests, but not the consent of the entire population of Burkina Faso. Rather, they had taken advantage of the fact that there are so many illiterate people in the local villages. The majority of the inhabitants of Burkina Faso are against these experiments. He raised the question: "Why not try this first in scientifically better equipped countries, but in Burkina Faso?" In his view, Burkina Faso was in a position to combat malaria itself. He said that this does not require gene drives, but a good health concept.

Dr. Andreas Wulf, doctor and consultant for global health at the medical emergency aid organization Medico International, emphasized that epidemics like malaria require long-term strategies. The idea of trying to solve such a disease with the one-time use of a technology without continued commitment is questionable, he said. One should not rely on such a "technological fix". Experience in combating other epidemics has shown that the success of the measures depends on good cooperation with the people on the ground and finding local solutions. He also criticized from a democratic point of view: "It is a problem that so much decision-making power is given to these private actors, the companies / foundations. A handful of people choose which area of research to invest in. In addition, the media coverage of research is also financially supported by these foundations". Dr. Andreas Wulf concluded that these private funds need to be embedded in the public health systems.

Mareike Imken, head of the Stop Gene Drive campaign of Save Our Seeds, explained that with the European campaign, which is supported by many organizations throughout Europe, she wanted to initiate a critical discussion in society and politics about "whether and if so, under what circumstances we want to use this technology and what restrictions it needs."
She went on to explain: "Gene Drives provides us as humanity with a tool to specifically eradicate or change wild species. In times of a species extinction that is existential for mankind, this must be considered and ethically discussed. This should not be decided lightly by those few people". She also points out that "the knowledge about Gene Drives is not yet sufficiently advanced".
In order to have time for this discussion, in-depth risk research including technology assessment and the development of internationally valid rules and decision-making mechanisms, a global moratorium on the release of gene drive organisms is needed. This moratorium must be adopted at the next Conference of the Parties of the UN Convention on Biological Diversity (COP 15).