The Gamble: Can Genetically Modified Mosquitoes End Disease?

S. Nolen,  New York Times,  2023.

The malaria situation in São Tomé and Príncipe, an African island nation with a population of 200,000, epitomizes the current challenge in the global struggle against the disease. The country is among the world’s least developed, and it has depended on foreign aid to fight malaria. Various campaigns over the past 50 years drove cases down, only to have them resurge worse than ever when the benefactor moved on. Over the past 18 years, with nearly $21 million from the Global Fund to Fight AIDS, Tuberculosis and Malaria, São Tomé has used a package of tools — including insecticide-treated bed nets; new and better drugs; killing larvae in bodies of water; and indoor spraying of homes — to stunning effect. No one has died of malaria here in the past five years. These countries need a way to fight the disease that is permanent and does not require continuous investment. Greg Lanzaro, a molecular geneticist at the University of California, Davis, who leads the malaria team, believes his group has that solution. “We’ve been working on this for 30 years, and from the beginning we said, ‘It has to work, but it also has to be inexpensive, and it has to be sustainable,’” he said as he watched the mosquitoes being released in a Santo Antonio park. “And we believe we have it.” But genetic modification is a controversial endeavor. Governments are hesitant, and few in Africa have laws to regulate the use of the technology. Its risks lie in the unknowns: Could the modified mosquito evolve in some way that has harmful effects on the rest of the ecosystem? Could it prompt a dangerous mutation in the malaria parasite, which will find a new way to spread to survive? It is, in essence, the Jurassic Park question: Could meddling in genetic code have catastrophic consequences that no one anticipates?

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