Written by Aaron Roberts, Institute on Ethics & Policy for Innovation at McMaster University

Gene drive technology is being explored as a durable and cost-effective biocontrol tool for elimination of malaria in Africa. Some critics consider this novel technology, by its very nature, to be an overly risky method for reducing or eliminating malaria.

The most common, and reasonable concern I have heard is about the potential for ecological harm. It is true, the technology has not yet been tested under natural (out of the lab) conditions. The question is whether testing in the wild should proceed, after conducting rigorous safety and efficacy testing in controlled cage conditions, and after receiving the proper regulatory approvals. After all, even if field tests to discover whether the technology is efficacious in the wild proceed and prove successful, those concerned argue that such a release may also result in unintended ecological consequences. The existence of these unknowns has prompted some to call for a global moratorium on research and development of gene drive technology.

Something we must always keep in mind when assessing novel technologies and methods is that it does not make ethical sense to do so in a vacuum. There is a very human tendency to fear the unknown above even terrible certainties – as it is sometimes colloquially said, “Better the devil you know.” This is called a status quo bias. But no decision is made outside of a given context, and ethics demands that context be taken into consideration as we make our decisions.