The government of Burkina Faso granted scientists permission to release genetically engineered mosquitoes anytime this year or next, researchers announced Wednesday. It's a key step in the broader efforts to use bioengineering to eliminate malaria in the region.
The release, which scientists are hoping to execute this month, will be the first time that any genetically engineered animal is released into the wild in Africa. While these particular mosquitoes won't have any mutations related to malaria transmission, researchers are hoping their release, and the work that led up to it, will help improve the perception of the research and trust in the science among regulators and locals alike. It will also inform future releases.
Teams in three African countries — Burkina Faso, Mali, and Uganda — are building the groundwork to eventually let loose "gene drive" mosquitoes, which would contain a mutation that would significantly and quickly reduce the mosquito population. Genetically engineered mosquitoes have already been released in places like Brazil and the Cayman Islands, though animals with gene drives have never been released in the wild.
In Africa, the project's success depends on more than just the science of genetic engineering. The people who live in the areas where the mosquitoes will be released must give their consent, researchers must staff and maintain labs to work with genetically modified animals, and regulators must accept the new technology. The impending release of these mosquitoes serves as a stress test for the whole system.
"We're seeing all those other pieces that are as important, if not more important, than the science itself, lined up and actually being executed in sequence," said Philip Welkhoff, malaria director at the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, which dedicated $70 million to support the research teams in the three countries.
Burkina Faso's national biosafety authority granted permission on August 10 for scientists to release up to 10,000 genetically engineered mosquitoes, said Delphine Thizy, director of stakeholder engagement for the "Target Malaria" project, which coordinates the teams across the three African countries, along with researchers in England and Italy. The government's decision was made public in Burkina Faso Wednesday.
These mosquitoes, unlike their "gene drive" counterparts, are not intended to have a lasting impact on the insect population. They have something called a "sterile male" mutation — none of the male mosquitoes that will be released will be able to have offspring, said Abdoulaye Diabate, the lead researcher in Burkina Faso.
Nearly all will be male, but less than one percent might be female — which are the only members of the species that bite. If any bite a human, they will not pass on any genetically modified material, Diabate said.
All of the modified mosquitoes the group will release are also weaker than natural mosquitoes, so they should die off in a matter of months, Thizy said.
The scientists plan to release the mosquitoes some time this month in Bana, a village in the western part of the country, close to the research laboratory where the scientists work. A group of six leaders in that village signed off on the project in May 2018.
Bana's residents, as well as people who live in two other nearby villages where the scientists have been doing research, were informed of the government's decision Tuesday, Thizy said.
Few Bana residents raised concerns about the project, Lea Pare, who leads the team's outreach in Burkina Faso, told STAT. Her team worked hard to address questions about the science behind their efforts — including concerns about whether those "sterile males" might somehow pass on that sterile status to humans. (It doesn't work that way.) And her team even brought in linguists and worked with the village's residents to develop a standard vocabulary of scientific phrases in Dioula, the local language, which doesn't have words for ideas like "gene."