World Malaria Day: Do we need gene drives to fight malaria?

Gene drive technology carries high risks. Yet it is being promoted by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation as a solution to malaria. On the occasion of World Malaria Day, the Stop Gene Drives campaign is launching a project that presents different perspectives on the issue of malaria control and highlights alternative, possibly less risky approaches and innovations to combat malaria.

Infectious diseases such as malaria, dengue fever and Lyme disease are transmitted to humans by so-called vectors, such as mosquitoes or ticks. In the case of malaria, the pathogen and thus the disease is spread exclusively by Anopheles mosquitoes. A global program of malaria control has so far helped to roll back the disease in many regions of the world. Already 38 countries have been certified malaria-free, but there remain 86 countries where malaria control has not been adequately implemented, resulting in several hundred thousand deaths.

This is where the discussion of Gene Drive technology comes into play. Mosquitoes are genetically modified in the laboratory using a process known as CRISPR/Cas so that they pass on a new trait to all their offspring, even if that trait causes the population or the entire species to become extinct. Gene drive mosquitoes produced in this way are expected to massively reduce the number of Anopheles mosquitoes in Africa and thus prevent the transmission of malaria. Gene drives are therefore being promoted as an effective technological solution to combat malaria.

Mareike Imken, coordinator of the Stop Gene Drive campaign, explains in a short interview what concerns there are about the use of gene drive technology and what the goal of the European Stop Gene Drive campaign is. (To the interview)

A leading role in the development of such gene drives is played by the international research consortium Target Malaria, which is largely funded by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. In an interview with us, Dr. Andreas Wulf of Medico International explains their influence on global health policy and the selection of priorities and measures, including those to combat malaria, that are influenced by them. (To the interview)

Target Malaria’s plans to use gene drives have already reached the stage where the first projects have been launched in Africa, including Burkina Faso. In July 2019, Target Malaria conducted its first field tests in Burkina Faso using genetically modified sterile mosquitoes that did not yet carry Gene Drive. These trials were considered a precursor to the release of Gene Drive mosquitoes in a later phase of the project. These and subsequent tests have met with resistance from parts of the population in Burkina Faso, as Ali Tapsoba, human rights activist, explains in his interview with us. (To the interview) He is the spokesperson for civil society resistance to the release of Gene Drives in Burkina Faso. Treatment and profilaxis with Artemisia teas grown in Africa are among the measures he would prefer over the use of Gene Drive technology. However, the World Health Organization (WHO) warns against this. Internationally renowned professor Pamela Weathers of Worcester Polytechnic Institute explains how effective and safe Artemisia tea infusions are for treating or preventing malaria in her interview with us. (To the interview)

Burkina Faso has, according to epidemiologist Dr. Sory, a strong strategy to combat malaria. A cocktail of different measures is needed to fight this disease and decrease other diseases at the same time. Better drainage systems, awareness raising and access to health care are just a few points raised in the interview. (To the interview)

Artemisinin is a component derived from the Artemisia plant and present in most anti-malarial drugs nowadays. Lucile Cornet-Vernet and Arnaud Nouvion from the Maison de l’Artemisia, talk about the potential to use the plant as tea as a preventive and curative method for malaria. Furthermore, they make clear that final clinical studies are needed to get the plant approved by the WHO. (To the interview with Lucile and Arnaud)