Africa: Does Gene Technology Offer Potential to Wipe Out Malaria?

Malaria kills more than 650,000 people each year; the majority of those deaths occurring on the African continent. In 2019, 229 million people were infected. That’s about 3 percent of all humans on Earth, every year. Worse off, 409,000 people died of malaria. Over the past two decades, great progress has been made in the Malaria fight, saving more than 7 million lives and preventing over 1 billion malaria cases.

Each year, World Malaria Day (April 25) commemorates the global fight toward zero Malaria deaths and mobilizes action to combat the disease.

The persisting high numbers of Malaria deaths and illnesses mean that the current tools will not get us to zero Malaria. For this reason, experts have continued to explore new tools for Malaria elimination. The gene drive technology is one of the tools being explored for Malaria elimination in Africa.

The technology, developed in the past decade, enables precise editing of the genes of living organisms. For Malaria, the technology could be applied to modify the genes of Malaria-causing mosquitoes (the Anopheles) to either reduce their survival or deactivate genes that enable them to carry the Malaria parasite. If successfully applied, scientists believe that gene drive mosquitoes could significantly accelerate the path to Malaria elimination, or zero Malaria.

In 2017, the African Union recognized the potential of the gene drive technology in controlling and eliminating Malaria on the continent, and committed to invest in the development and regulation of the technology. This commitment is being implemented by the African Union Development Agency (AUDA/NEPAD), which is currently spearheading efforts to build capacity and support countries to establish the necessary regulatory framework for guiding the research to test the gene drive technology for elimination of Malaria on the continent.

Currently, researchers are working in Burkina Faso, Mali and Uganda, to prepare the stage for the testing of gene drive mosquitoes for the control and elimination of Malaria on the continent. As such, the technology is still a long way from being moved from the laboratory to real life. The ongoing research will, among others, test whether gene drive mosquitoes can control and eliminate Malaria, and whether they are safe for humans and for the environment.

While the ongoing research on use of gene drives for the control and elimination of Malaria is raising many ethical and safety questions, the stakes of doing nothing are high.

Africa accounts for 94% of all Malaria deaths and illnesses in the world. And so, Africa is the place where this technology needs to be tested because if it is tested elsewhere, we will never know if indeed it can control or eliminate Malaria on the continent.

There is urgent need for Africans to engage with the ongoing research on the use of gene drives for the elimination of Malaria on the continent. They need to understand the technology, the benefits it could bring if proven to work, and voice their concerns so that these can be addressed and also inform the ongoing research.