World Malaria Day 2023 and the gene drives deception

At the occasion of World Malaria Day (25 April), the Stop Gene Drives Campaign encourages you to take a closer look at the insights and perspectives shared by prominent actors and other organisations closely monitoring the subject on this significant day.

By 2030, the World Health Organization (WHO) hopes to reduce the global malaria burden by ninety percent (in comparison to a 2015 baseline). Running against the clock, facing unforeseen obstacles, and with multiple interests on the table, recent years have seen setbacks in the progress of malaria control.

Particularly during the Covid-19 pandemic, health service disruptions, diverted resources, and reduced access to affected communities posed concrete obstacles towards the 2030 target.

Aiming at overcoming such obstacles and accelerating the process, the 2023 World Malaria Day was marked by the theme “Time to deliver zero malaria: invest, innovate, implement”. On social media and online, this slogan was well exploited to reinforce a narrative in which biotechnology (particularly gene drives) is the pinnacle of innovation in malaria control.

We invite you to look at a few examples and join us in uncovering the stories behind them.

A new type of celebrity

Target Malaria, a controversial research consortium backed by US military funding from DARPA, took the opportunity to reinforce its narrative of innovation equals solution.

In their story, scientists are the equivalent of rockstars, who will use their latest creations to save the world from malaria. They insist that urgent innovation (i.e. new genetic technologies, particularly gene drives to eradicate mosquitos) is the only viable remedy in the face of the critical situation. This scenario, in their view, seems to exist is a vacuum where risks are minimal and negative consequences are not taken into account. Other organisations followed a similar recipe of presenting ‘science and innovation’ as the (only) tools that can put malaria control back on track. (See examples here, here and here)

This tunnel-vision narrative is dangerous and deceptive. In addition to spreading misinformation, efforts that are led by pressure to produce immediate results and return on investment, can easily overlook risks, produce flawed results, and only address issues at surface level. In addition to that, it creates momentum towards a false idea that a final solution to the malaria burden has been found – which is unfortunately still not a reality.

A deep wound cannot be treated with a bandage

Fighting malaria is a complex issue that requires structural and long-term solutions. The push for the deployment of technologies (such as gene drives) ignores both ecological risks and context-related challenges.

At the occasion of World Malaria Day 2023, several organisations and actors raised concerns about why it is crucial to go beyond the superficial, quick-fix/technical aspect of fighting malaria.

The most recurrent concerns highlighted the need to also fight socio-economic and infrastructural factors that enable the prevalence of malaria. These include poverty, gender and other inequalities, inadequate water, sanitation, and hygiene infrastructure, and lack of access to education and healthcare.

Some argue that every malaria case is preventable and avoidable, urging global leaders to increase funding and action. They promote different tools such as enhanced bed nets, vaccines, monoclonal antibodies, and mosquito sugar baits. Advocating for a holistic approach that provides communities with necessary tools and addresses underlying causes. (See examples here, here, and here)

What else is there to uncover?

There seems to be a consensus among those engaged in eradicating malaria that progress towards a dramatic reduction by 2030 is delayed. In this context, narratives that advocate for rushed ‘innovation’ and new technologies as the solution tend to overlook risks and potential irreversible ripple effects.

The emergency of new challenges, such as the detection of a new malaria vector in Sub-Saharan Africa, highlights the importance of carefully considering whether technofixes can soon become obsolete. This is in addition to being sensitive to the myriad of cascading effects that the deployment of an unpredictable and irreversible technology could have in ecosystems and human health.

Research aimed at malaria eradication should be conducted with caution and responsibility as well as be based on serious and accurate scientific methods and findings. Furthermore, it should explore multiple solutions and alternatives (e.g., nets, antimalarial drugs, vaccine, etc.) and not exist in isolation from its context. All efforts to reduce the malaria burden need to consider and address the underlying socio-economic and infrastructural factors that contribute to its prevalence.

Finally, breaking down the narratives and stories being communicated on the topic can be helpful to uncover hidden agendas and identify oversights in the evaluation of tools and methods to eradicate malaria. Hopefully, contributing to a more adequate and informed evaluation of options and balanced and responsible decision-making in fighting malaria.

Further resources:

Learn more here about the applications and risks of gene drives in the context of malaria eradication.

Access here the African Center for Biodiversity’s analysis on the linkages between capitalism and malaria.

Watch here an interview with Burkinabé activists Ali Tapsoba and Guy Yameogo assessing community engagement for gene drive release in their country.

Access here some insights from front line workers on the issue of gene drives and malaria.