Technology to Fight Malaria, Zika, and Other Mosquito-Related Diseases Is Being Blocked. Why?

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BIOtech Now
Josh Falzone

Every year, mosquitos infect 500 million people with diseases and mosquito-borne illnesses claim nearly a million lives. Mosquito-related diseases—like malaria, West Nile, and Zika—have proven difficult to control in certain parts of the world, like Africa.

But controlling diseases is not a long-term or sustainable solution. Instead, how can we eliminate and eventually eradicate these deadly diseases? Today, scientists are working to develop techniques and technology, such as gene editing, that could help us achieve this goal. Unfortunately, some extremists are opposing these efforts.

First, let’s break down what technology is being developed to save lives.

With funding from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, Target Malaria is exploring gene editing as an option to tackle the deadly disease directly at the source: the three species of female African mosquitos that are responsible for most malaria transmissions. Target Malaria researchers are working to identify and cut fertility genes in female mosquitoes that would limit their ability to reproduce. The mosquitos would eventually pass the edited genes onto their offspring, creating a self-sustaining modification that would exponentially reduce the malaria mosquito population in future generations.

Another example is in Aedes aegypti mosquitos, which are the primary vector of dengue, Zika, and yellow fever. Using genetic engineering, the company Oxitec has created “Friendly™ Mosquitoes”. The Friendly™ Mosquitoes are male Aedes aegypti mosquitoes that carry a “self-limiting” gene. This means when they mate with wild females, the offspring inherit a copy of that gene and it will prevent the offspring from surviving to adulthood, which will reduce the wild pest population. Pilot projects in Brazil, Panama and the Cayman Islands have suppressed wild populations by more than 80% relative to an untreated area – a level of control greater than that typically achieved with insecticides. And these field releases did not have a dangerous impact on the environment, as some extremists wrongfully predicted.

Are extremists preventing this technology from becoming a global reality?

The short answer is yes. Richard Tren, a co-founder of Africa Fighting Malaria, recently wrote in the Wall Street Journal that some environmental extremist groups demanded the Target Malaria project in Burkina Faso be shut down.

This spring Target Malaria ran a carefully controlled experimental release in Burkina Faso. The test followed years of research and similar successful releases in Latin America and the Caribbean. None of that mattered to the coalition of 40 leading environmental and “civil society” organizations demanding the project be shut down immediately. The activist opposition to Target Malaria is part of a larger and growing campaign against all modern genetic technologies and pesticides used in both in disease control and agriculture. The campaign has been promoted in recent years by United Nations agencies such as the Food and Agriculture Organization, as well as by European governments and European Union-funded nongovernmental organizations.

And these extremists groups have hindered other potential life-saving projects. Via Mr. Tren’s column:

Field releases of genetically modified mosquitoes elsewhere—notably Oxitec’s trial in Brazil, aimed at controlling Dengue fever—have gone off without the dire consequences environmentalists predicted. But several years ago during the Zika outbreaks in Florida and Texas, scare campaigns succeeded in blocking mosquito tests that had been approved by the Food and Drug Administration.

What are the potential impacts of extreme opposition to life-saving technology?

Right now, biotechnology is helping us unlock safe, remarkable advancements and developments that can mitigate climate change, fight hunger and reduce food waste, combat deadly diseases, and more. One of the leading ideologies opposing genetic technology is “agroecology.” Mr. Tren explains this movement further:

There’s a long history of opposition to genetic technology, with serious human costs. Consider the decadeslong effort to stop cultivation of genetically modified golden rice, which could save two million people a year—many of them children—from early death and crippling blindness caused by vitamin A deficiency. A petition signed by 144 Nobel laureates calls on environmentalists to end their campaigns and accuses Greenpeace of a “crime against humanity” for its leading role.

Opposition to modern technology has deepened, and its highly politicized ideology has captured much of the development community under the banner of “agroecology.” This is a radical approach to food production that excludes modern farming techniques, including synthetic pesticides and fertilizers, modern hybrid seeds and even mechanization. Agroecology explicitly promotes “peasant agriculture” and the superior wisdom of “indigenous peoples.”

[…]

A recent study promoted by agroecologists acknowledges that their policies would reduce food production by 35% in Europe, which has not given agroecologists pause. It is hard to tell whether they champion these policies out of sheer nostalgia or because they would prefer a planet with fewer people. Allowing millions to die from preventable diseases and inadequate nutrition is certainly one way to achieve that goal. The Nobel laureates are right to call it a crime against humanity.

If we are to feed a growing population and eradicate deadly diseases, we must explore, research, and test all options. When advancements in technology and science are proven safe, we must work to responsibly implement them so we can save lives and ensure we leave behind a better world for future generations.

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