Burkina Faso is fighting malaria — with genetically modified mosquitoes

A scientist dissects a mosquito at a research facility in Rockville, Maryland.

Scientists hit a major turning point Monday in the small village of Bana in Burkina Faso — a west African country that experienced some 4,000 malaria deaths last year.

They coated about 10,000 genetically modified mosquitoes in fluorescent dust and released them into the wild. Their purpose? To fight malaria. 

It marks the first time that genetically modified mosquitoes have ever been let loose in Africa.

Dr. Abdoulaye Diabaté with the nonprofit Target Malaria is leading the project. Diabaté says the idea behind what they’re doing is to make genetically engineered mosquitoes that could then spread a special gene into the wild malaria-carrying population — a gene that could squash their ability to reproduce — and doing so could potentially wipe out species in that area.

This type of “gene drive” technology has never been tried outside of a lab, anywhere. The release of these mosquitoes was a preliminary test. They were all sterile males that can’t pass on their genes in the wild. 

The hope is that this technology can eventually replace bed nets, repellents and insecticides. Still, the experiment has drawn some criticism from environmentalists concerned that eradicating one species of mosquito could disrupt the entire ecosystem in unforeseeable ways. 

Diabaté says it took years to get to this point. The World’s Marco Werman spoke to him about what’s next. 

Diabaté: The work that we have started here, we’ve started since 2012. …Today we did the release, so that means seven years. So we have really taken our time to work through to do it, a very good characterization of all the different sites but also making sure that we have time to discuss with all the community to make sure that they have a good understanding of the work that we are doing. And when we said community it’s not just about the field site where we are working. Community, for us, is the global population of Burkina Faso.

Marco Werman: What does 10,000 mosquitoes getting released all at once actually look like? Is it dramatic like a big black cloud or is it really not that impressive to see?

Ten thousand mosquitoes compared to the total .. .population size of mosquitoes in the field is pretty much nothing at all. But for us, it was really, really important because we wanted to collect consistent and robust scientific data on mosquitoes’ behavior in the flight pattern and flight dispersal, the longevity. All these specific scientific data will inform the next step of the work that we are doing. And a second objective for us was to make sure that with this release, it gives us time to interact a lot with the community so that they are absolutely aware of the work that we are doing if there is any concern — so that we can bring these concerns [and] we can factor it into the development process.

What are the potential risks of wiping out a species — even a species of malaria-carrying mosquitoes?

First of all, let me tell you that we have about 3,500 species of mosquitoes across the world. And just for the region of Africa, we have 850 species. So Target Malaria is just targeting only one species, which is a major malaria victory in Africa and mostly Burkina Faso. So if targeting only one species can help to save millions of lives, I think it’s really important and worth doing it.

Let’s say all goes well with this phase in the study, what happens next? And when does that next step happen?

We did the release on Monday. So we have to do the monitoring of these mosquitoes up to one year just to see how they behave. But the next step is that, as soon as we have done this, we will have to submit [an] application to the National Regulatory Agency for a second construct. Once we have enough data from there and then we feel confident, then we can transform that. And then insert the geographic component in it. And this is going to be the final product that we will use at some point in the field.

And how many years down the road do you think that’s going to be?

If it was just based on the technical science part it will be really very fast, maybe in two or three years. But you have to understand that, because this is a new technology, there are several components in it. Safety is really paramount to us. And then to make really sure that before you get to the final product, you have a social license from the community where you are operating to accept the product that you are bringing. And this is the work that we are doing. And this is going to take a little bit of time and so we feel that it may take us maybe something like six or seven years down the line to have the final product and bring it to the field.

You’re from Burkina Faso. How did you get interested in mosquitoes in the first place?

I don’t really know anyone in Burkina Faso who was born here and raised here and who has not been through malaria. I experienced malaria several times when I was a kid, all my brothers and sister. And I am even talking to you today as a parent, so all my kids also went through a malaria episode. And this is something particularly very difficult to sustain, not only psychologically, but also you spend a lot of money. And Africa has been suffering from malaria for several decades. At the beginning of the bed net — to see that we were having a very good impact — we were very excited. But at some point, we realized that because of insecticide … we were kind of having a plateau in the efficacy, and I feel that it’s important for us to move to something else that can help us. I feel like … if there is really a way for us to better study the mosquitoes that are transmitting the disease and then come up with tools that can help to fight and reduce the burden on Africa — this is really the right thing for us to do.

This interview has been lightly edited and condensed. 

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