This morning I picked up a November 2018 Economist from my coffee table and was drawn to an article on gene drives. The article focuses on the promise and peril of new genetic-engineering technology concentrating on the potential for the technology to help eradicate Malaria. The World Health Organization (WHO) estimates that Malaria impacts over 219 million people worldwide, killing more than 435,000 people annually opening the door to some clear cut benefits for using this controversial new technology.
The article describes multiple dilemmas with this technology from the scientific e.g. preventing unintended genetic consequences in the future, ethical e.g. worries that gene drives could be used as ‘weaponised insects’ to the ecological e.g. are there other species dependant on the eradicated or altered species.
The article describes how using CRISPR technology, researchers can now disrupt the double-sex gene that controls the differentiation of the sexes and essentially causes sterility to swamp the population. This work is being delivered as part of the Target Malaria alliance where other interventions such as bed nets, insecticide and drugs would be used in conjunction with the introduction of genetically modified mosquitos to ensure the cycle of malaria is completely broken and the species and disease totally eradicated.
Clearly, for Malaria, the case for continued research and testing is extremely strong with continent changing humanitarian gains in areas such as sub-Saharan Africa where 90% of Malaria cases occur. That said, I was still left a little dissatisfied, with no clear conclusion in my own mind about how I feel about this new breakthrough technology and the risks associated with its application in other areas. Perhaps it is as simple as assessing on a case by case basis, with the right levels of security protocols, governance and research but as the author suggests the allegations of playing God with gene drives does feel better-founded than usual.
EXTINCTIONS ARE seldom cause for celebration. Humans are wiping out species at a frightening rate, whether hunting them into history or, far more threateningly, damaging the habitats on which they depend. But occasionally, the destruction is warranted.