Burkino Faso malaria test raises stakes at UN biodiversity conference
EXCERPT: “We don’t want dangerous experiments in our country. We don’t want corrupt politicians and scientists making decisions on our behalf,” said Ali Tapsoba, the president of Terre a Vie, an organisation that has organised protests against what he calls medical colonialism. “If Bill Gates wants to help us, then he should ask us what we want, not do something we don’t want.”
GM mosquito trial sparks "Sorcerer’s Apprentice" lab fears
Jonathan Watts in Sharm el-Sheikh
The Guardian, 25 Nov 2018
* Burkino Faso malaria test raises stakes at UN biodiversity conference
Thousands of genetically modified mosquitoes are to be released in Burkina Faso as a step towards the world’s first field test of “gene-drive” technology.
The trial, which has been funded by organisations linked to the Gates Foundation, Facebook, and – indirectly – the Pentagon, is part of a project to eradicate malaria, but it has prompted concerns among local civil society organisations, who say their country is being set up as a laboratory for “Sorcerer’s Apprentice” technology before the risks are fully understood.
The planned test, which will be the first release of a genetically modified animal in Africa, has also raised the stakes at the two-week UN biodiversity conference, where representatives are debating whether to establish a moratorium on gene drives or to allow continued research under strict guidelines.
Gene-drive technology involves engineering organisms to boost their chance of passing on a particular trait to their offspring. This technique has been compared with the Sorcerer’s Apprentice because – like the Goethe poem and the scene in Disney’s Fantasia – it repeatedly replicates a trait until a population is redesigned or exterminated.
The Pentagon is funding a “safe genes” project that aims to guard against potential gene-drive threats, though the research could potentially be weaponised. Agribusiness companies are looking at the possibilities for pest eradication and landscape transformations. But its initial uses look set to be in the fields of medicine and conservation of endangered wildlife on islands overrun by invasive species.
The Burkina Faso test is being run by Target Malaria Project, which has researchers at Imperial College London and numerous partner institutions including the University of Oxford. The main funding comes from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and the Open Philanthropy Project (whose major donors are a co-founder of Facebook and other Silicon Valley companies).
For the first stage, researchers recently secured government approval to release up to 10,000 sterile male Anopheles gambiae mosquitoes.
The results will be monitored for a year to train scientists, stress-test regulatory systems and encourage locals to grow accustomed to the study.
If this is successful, there will be further phases and eventually scientists are thought to be planning a more advanced release of mosquitos engineered with gene-drive technology to spread sterility and eventually eradicate the vector for the disease.
“Our focus is not eradicating mosquitoes but instead exploring whether gene drive technology can help eradicate malaria, an awful disease that kills 435,000 a year, most of whom are children under five,” said Delphine Thizy, stakeholder engagement manager at Target Malaria.
“We are some way off having a product ready to take to regulators; nevertheless we are working with villagers in our target countries, engaging the public in local languages with institutional ethical oversight and seeking community acceptance for our research at every stage.”
Target Malaria hopes the tests will lead to a breakthrough that can reduce the prevalence of a disease that kills more than 400,000 people each year. They say the risks are negligible because the mosquitos are sterile and will die within months, but conservation groups and local activists say the technology should not be tried out on an economically vulnerable region.
“We don’t want dangerous experiments in our country. We don’t want corrupt politicians and scientists making decisions on our behalf,” said Ali Tapsoba, the president of Terre a Vie, an organisation that has organised protests against what he calls medical colonialism. “If Bill Gates wants to help us, then he should ask us what we want, not do something we don’t want.”
Miriam Mayet, of another NGO, African Centre for Biodiversity, said Target Malaria has already started baseline tests in two villages, Bobo and Sourkoudingan, where locals have been paid less than a dollar an hour to expose their arms and legs to mosquito bites.
The two activists were speaking at the UN conference of the Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD), in Sharm-el Sheikh, Egypt, where recent leaps forward in genetic engineering have prompted some of the most heated debates. Delegates at the CBD – which is the main global watchdog on the use of genetic material – say the decisions made now on this subject could lead to both benefits and the extermination of entire species with as yet unknown and potentially irreversible consequences for ecosystems and humanity.
Royden Saah, of the NGO Island Conservation, is a supporter of the technology. His organisation wants to develop a gene-drive alternative to poison that will clear remote islands of invasive species, particularly rodents that are putting many native populations of birds, crabs and lizards at risk of extinction.
Working with universities in Texas and North Carolina, he says the group may have demonstration technology between six and 18 months from now. The GBIRd Project – as it is known – is already testing gene-driven mice in cages and containment areas of increasingly larger sizes and have identified remote islands for more advanced tests with low risk of spreading to other areas. He is against a moratorium.
“If you can’t do the research, you can’t understand the uncertainties and you won’t advance the technology to get the tools to eradicate invasive species responsible for extinction,” he said. “Once you eradicate species, it’s like hitting the reset button.”
But there are concerns this apparently benign application will be followed by riskier, profit- or military-driven uses. Among those who have expressed interest are the California Cherry Board and the US Citrus Research Board. Friends of the Earth says several of the scientists associated with Target Malaria and Island Conservation also appear to receive funding from the Pentagon’s Defence Advanced Research Projects Agency, which has given $100m to gene-drive studies.
“We need more transparency about who is influencing the critical decisions and the projects that will have profound impacts of people’s lives and eco-systems,” said Dana Perls of Friends of the Earth US.
There are partial precedents elsewhere. The UK biotech company Oxitech previously released genetically modified Aedes aegypti mosquitoes in Panama and Brazil. The company claimed that this led to declines in the carriers of dengue and zika, but opponents say a similar test in the Cayman Islands was abandoned last week amid reports that the female mosquito population increased instead of declining.
There are plans for similar studies in Florida Keys in the US, but these have been held up due to public opposition. None of these tests involved gene-drive technology, which is a far bigger step.
The negotiations will continue this week, but the momentum for a moratorium appears to be weakening. Last week, the Royal Society in the UK released a statement by more than 100 scientists who warned important research on disease control would be knocked off track if the the UN body imposes a gene drive ban. At the outset of the talks, the African Group of Nations - which had previously been one of the most powerful opponents of the technology – shifted its position away from a moratorium. The International Union for the Conservation of Nature is also revisiting its earlier stance of opposition to gene drives.
Jim Thomas, the co-director of the genetic industry watchdog ETC Group, said it was shocking that the Convention on Biodiversity, which was set up to protect nature, was considering whether to allow a technique that will eliminate species. “Gates and the Silicon Valley funders think they can use technology to solve all the world’s problems because that’s how they got rich. It is deliberately framed as a benefit for medicine, but this is not really how this technology will be mostly used.”
This subject looks likely to dominate debate for many years to come, along with controversies over gene editing and digital sequence information. Part of the reason is that scientists are able to manipulate genes in increasingly sophisticated ways thanks to the genome-editing tool Crispr-Cas9.
“We are on the cusp of a new bio-revolution,” said one UN official, who asked to remain anonymous. “It is like we were using saws but now we are using scalpels. We can eradicate entire species and we can resurrect them like Jurassic Park. The change is mind-boggling. But it doesn’t always work 100%. There can still be unintended consequences.”