Using gene drives

On 11 October 2016 the African Academy of Sciences and the Foundation for the National Institutes of Health (FNIH) convened a roundtable discussion on the potential of gene drive technology for malaria control. The roundtable brought together scientists from across Africa with expertise in infectious diseases, entomology and public health.

Participants at the gene drive meeting held in Nairobi, Kenya

The session started with a presentation by Austin Burt, Principal Investigator for from Target Malaria, a research project aiming to develop modified mosquitoes for malaria control. The goal of the project is to develop mosquitoes where the malaria-transmitting mosquito populations is affected in one of two ways: either by biasing the male to female ratio of mosquitoes, with an increasingly male mosquito population leading to a reduction in the overall population over time. The other strategy seeks to reduce female mosquito fertility, also leading to a reduction in mosquito population size. In both cases, the reduction in the population of malaria-transmitting mosquitoes would be expected to contribute to interrupting malaria transmission. The project is currently focused on three sub-species of mosquitoes from the Anopheles gambiae complex, representing a very small proportion of mosquitoes in Africa but the most important malaria vector in the region.

Jonathan Kayondo, Principal Investigator for Target Malaria Uganda, described the work currently underway at the three Target Malaria sites in Burkina Faso, Mali, and Uganda, where project partners have been carrying out extensive entomological work and readying insectaries for work on modified mosquitoes. Delphine Thizy, Stakeholder Engagement Manager, shared the project’s experience in delivering an ambitious stakeholder engagement programme, from local community level to the international policy scene.

Questions from the participants focused on the safety and efficacy aspects of the technology, in particular the strategies being considered to address the risk of resistance. Participants also noted the importance of An. funestus as a vector in East Africa, and the value of considering similar work on this species of mosquito as is currently underway for Anopheles gambiae in order to ensure effective malaria elimination. Participants discussed how success measured as an entomological end point could then be linked to success in actual malaria cases, noting that for public perception the direct correlation to malaria would be very important.

Several participants noted the importance of engagement and welcomed the project’s emphasis on that activity. Given the complex nature of the technology and the potential transboundary questions it would likely bring up, all agreed early engagement at the regional level should be a priority, both with the African scientific community and the policy-making community. NEPAD, the African Union and the sub-regional organisations such as ECOWAS and WAHO were identified as key entry points. Many noted that it was very positive to see leading institutions in the region taking part in the project and that technology transfer and capacity building were essential to ensure the technology could be successfully developed for use in Africa.

In the afternoon a panel discussion examined the opportunities and challenges approaches such as gene drive presented for African scientists and African research institutions. Panelists highlighted the challenge of finding appropriate regulatory bodies and pathways to ensure the new technologies could be assessed in a timely fashion by experts. The recent creation of the African Biological Safety Association was highlighted as a positive development, as well as the fact that the WHO Guidance Framework for Testing Genetically Modified Mosquitoes is being updated. Nonetheless the need for more capacity building of African scientists and regulators was noted as a priority, as well as the importance of seeing more Africa-based scientists convening and leading discussions on these types of new technologies. Panelists also echoed the morning’s comments about the importance of early engagement, in particular across-disciplines and with the broad scientific and policy-making community.