Dollars and Malaria mosquito

African governments are selling out to agribusiness and US military interests, say Mariam Mayet, Lim Li Ching and Eva Sirinathsinghji

The highly contentious issue of gene drive technologies – a novel extreme form of genetic engineering designed to alter or even eradicate entire populations and species – was at the heart of the international negotiations at the biennial UN Biodiversity Conference held in Sharm el-Sheikh, Egypt, in November 2018.

On the pretext of supporting scientific innovation for malaria eradication on the African continent, the African Group vociferously defended a techno-fix that does not address the wider determinants of malaria. It loudly supported the latest experiment to be tested on African people – gene drive mosquitoes, which represent the changing face of colonial medicine on the continent.

Consensus on implementing a proposed moratorium on the release of gene drive organisms was not reached due to opposition from many biotech-friendly countries, which included the African Group of Nations – one of five regional negotiating blocs – which strongly advocated for the advancement of gene drive technology. This represents a stark shift away from the African Group’s historical position of being leading defenders of precaution against new technologies that may pose risks to biodiversity and the socio-economic status of their citizens.

In contrast, the global community was acutely concerned about the release of such organisms and their impacts on biodiversity, ecological systems, human health and society.

Given these clear concerns, why is the African Group so keen to ensure gene drive mosquitos are released across the continent? If we follow the money, it appears that corporate and military interests lurk behind gene drives for malaria control.

Gene drive mosquitoes are being developed at Imperial College, London under the aegis of the Target Malaria project, funded largely by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and Facebook co-founder Dustin Moskovitz’s Open Philanthropy Project. Tellingly, around 35 Africans delegates were funded and given healthy allowances from the deep pockets of the Gates’ foundation, which in 2016, doubled its funding to Target Malaria, bringing its total investment to US$75 million.

Gates also funds the PR firm Emerging Ag Inc., which employed dirty tactics by recruiting gene-drive friendly scientists to the Convention on Biological Diversity’s (CBD’s) online forum on synthetic biology in order to influence the CBD’s decision-making process on gene drives.

The African Group’s ready-made “consensus” position was based on the African Union (AU) position on gene drives, which has also been heavily influenced by foreign agribusiness and military interests, and especially Target Malaria.

The AU position, which was stealthily made – flouting AU decisions on public openness, transparency and public consultation – not only supports the deployment of gene drive organisms, but also slavishly repeats unsubstantiated claims made by gene drive developers. The African Centre for Biodiversity has slammed this position, calling into question its legitimacy, as it was formulated by cherry-picked, pro-biotech regulators and scientists, while the door was firmly shut against African civil society.  

Armed with this discredited, contested position, a belligerent African Group metamorphosed from its once historical role as the guardian of global biodiversity and precaution in regard to new technologies, into a faction that consistently blocked attempts to put in place a global moratorium on the release of gene drive organisms. This dubious position is all the more concerning, given that only South Africa really has some capacity to assess the risks posed by first-generation basic transgenic technologies.

Controversy over gene drive technologies, aptly dubbed “exterminator technologies”, stem from its defining feature – the ability of introduced genetic material to rapidly spread throughout a population by skewing natural inheritance patterns in such a way that all offspring can inherit the foreign DNA. This feature is being developed to promote the spread of transgenes that will reduce the number of female mosquitoes, potentially driving a species to extinction.

The first release of gene drive mosquitoes has been presented as a public health solution: eradicating malaria on the African continent. However, not only is the technology in its infancy, there is an absence of scientific evidence supporting it as a realistic and sustainable malaria eradication tool and it has raised serious ethical and biosafety concerns.

Once released into the open environment, gene drive organisms cannot be recalled due to their aggressive nature, which overrides natural inheritance patterns. Gene drive mosquitoes will of course not respect geographical borders and will likely spread across the continent.

The AU position pointedly ignores the biological certainty that resistance will very quickly develop to gene drive mosquitoes, given the huge evolutionary pressure aimed at wiping out a population. This is ironically widely acknowledged by gene drive developers, and Bill Gates himself has said: “None of these [gene technology] constructs will actually wipe out the species … It will evolve back. After all, evolutionary pressures always push back.”

Crucially, the technology is unproven as a sound medical intervention for malaria. Indeed, there is the potential for it to even exacerbate transmission. The epidemiology of malaria is highly complex and effected by a wide variety of factors. The history of malaria interventions instructs us that programs focusing on vector elimination have only worked in specific circumstances where, for example, wider favorable conditions, which do not exist on the African continent, are implemented. A possible resurgence in malaria cases is a concern if populations lose immunity to the disease.

The role of mosquitoes in the ecological system is not understood and thus ecological risks of potentially eradicating them are unknown. If gene drive technology is indeed effective in eradicating numbers, we will still have no understanding of the wider ecological impacts this could have.

The spread to other mosquito species, and what impact that would have and whether this eradication would lead to a niche replacement with other species, which may also carry disease, are further worrying concerns.

In these eventualities, will the African continent be faced with an even bigger mortality burden due to malaria? African lives are not bargaining chips for Gates’ dollars.

UN Biodiversity Treaty imposes clear restrictions on gene drive releases

Following intense and polarised negotiations over the scientific uncertainties of gene drive technologies and their very real potential to cause significant and irreversible adverse effects on biodiversity, the final UN decision laid out strict restrictions on any environmental release, including for experimental purposes, of the technology into the environment.

A key prerequisite is that potentially affected communities must give their “free, prior and informed consent”. This strong global legal protection intends that local communities exercise control over, and defend their biodiversity rights in, their land and territories.

Further conditions require that precautionary, risk assessment and risk management measures are put in place to “avoid or minimise potential adverse effects” to biodiversity. Read together with an often missed and all-important footnote, the 196 countries that are Parties to the CBD have the right to even impose bans and moratoria on the release of gene drive organisms where scientific knowledge is lacking.

Gene drive proponents are thus untruthful in their claim that the UN decision to not impose a full moratorium on environmental releases constitutes an endorsement of the technology. They are disingenuously failing to acknowledge the reality and details of the decision. Putting precautionary conditions in place by no means gives the go-ahead for gene drive releases, but instead points to the serious risks that might occur.

Indeed, as Jim Thomas, co-director of the ETC Group, has astutely pointed out: “This is a very cautionary and concerned decision about gene drives. There is nothing whatsoever in the text that talks about so-called benefits of gene drives — only risks.” In the African context, where little to no capacity or proper functioning biosafety systems exist even for first generation transgenic technologies that have been around for more than 20 years, this is as good as an explicit moratorium.

Corporate and military interests lurk behind gene drives for malaria control

While Target Malaria has captured the face of gene drive technologies, wider agribusiness and military interests are quietly developing this technology in the background. The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) of the United States military is reportedly the biggest funder of gene drive research, raising obvious concerns surrounding the dual use of gene drive technologies as a potential bioweapon. Agricultural applications are also in development, including introducing gene drives into agricultural pests to spread sterility; for spreading genes into livestock to increase meat production; and for reversing herbicide resistance development in weeds.

Gene drive developers are acutely aware of the public skepticism of genetic modification technologies and the distrust in the corporate GM industry, and appear happy for public health projects such as Target Malaria to be the poster child for gene drives. However, global civil society is alert and especially robust in Africa, where there is growing distrust in African governments for their inability to create conditions of openness, transparency, inclusion, accountability, and good governance.

Mariam Mayet is the executive director of the African Centre for Biodiversity, Lim Li Ching is a senior researcher with the Third World Network, and Dr Eva Sirinathsinghji is an independent biosafety scientist.

Further information

Detailed critique of the African Union position on gene drives.

Full briefing regarding the proposed initial trial release of genetically modified mosquitoes in Burkina Faso in 2019.