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.

The Ad Hoc Technical Expert Group (AHTEG) on Socio-Economic Considerations is now selecting new experts to serve on the group. Parties from all regions, other governments, relevant organizations, indigenous peoples and local communities interested in nominating experts must submit an official letter and a curriculum vitae that indicates their relevant expertise. Nominees are also required to complete the interest disclosure form. The COP-MOP Bureau will help select the new members. The application deadline is 6 of September. More details about the process are available here. The next meetings of this AHTEG will be in Vienna, Austria, from 10 to 13 of December.

If you are interested in this topic, you can also follow the expert discussions on the Online Forum on Socio-Economic Considerations, which will take place from 9 to 20 of September. To be able to post on the online forum, you need to be a registered expert, but the discussions are public so anyone can follow them.

The Pirbright Institute joined the Outreach Network in June. Their team is adding to the diversity of research groups looking into possible applications of gene drive approaches to tackle vector-borne diseases. This important work, focused on the mosquitoes that transmit viruses responsible for dengue, Zika and West Nile, will complement other efforts focused on malaria.

Pirbright’s Arthropod Genetics group, led by Professor Luke Alphey, is using gene drive to create proof-of-concept tools with the ultimate goal of reducing or eliminating mosquito-borne diseases. The group are primarily working with Aedes aegypti and Culex quinquefasciatus mosquitoes, which spread diseases of the flavivirus family.

The New York Times recently published an interesting article about how mosquitoes have affected human history. In “The Mosquitoes Are Coming for Us”, Timothy C. Winegard offers a sweeping review of mosquitoes’ deep impact on humans. Mosquitoes facilitated the rise and fall of the Roman Empire and even contributed to increasing slavery in America, as plantation owners believed Africans were more resistant to vector-borne diseases than native Americans. Mosquitoes have been more lethal than any manufactured weapons or inventions. Malaria, for instance, may have killed half of all the people that have ever lived (read John Whitfield “Portrait of a Serial Killer” in Nature)

Confused about what gene drives are and how they came about?

Read this great piece in the American Scientist by Fred Gould! Tracing the history of gene drives discovery and study, it offers a great backgrounder and explanation to the current thinking on the use of genetic technologies for controlling mosquito-borne diseases. As the article notes “You can hear both optimism and frustration at meetings where entomologists get together to talk over genetic control strategies. Scientists in this field have made great progress in the past 10 years, but major technical and social hurdles remain. In the end there will be poetic justice if biologists are able to use selfish DNA to serve the altruistic goal of improving world health.”