A new front has been opened up in the battle against malaria with the release of the first ever genetically modified mosquitoes in Africa.

Some 10,000 sterile male mosquitoes will be released in Burkina Faso, a country at the front line of the war against the disease. Last year there were 9.8m cases of malaria here, resulting in almost 4,000 deaths.

Malaria is the biggest killer of children under five in Africa and the most up-to-date figures show that there were 216 million malaria cases worldwide, and an estimated 445,000 malaria deaths.

This is the first step in a programme to dramatically reduce the mosquito population in the country, and hopefully beyond. The initial release of the mosquitoes will enable researchers to gather more data about the longevity and dispersal of the insects, as well as how they interact with the natural insect population.

Researchers also hope to gain operational experience and improve understanding of their work among regulators and locals.

“It’s a very important step for building knowledge and experience,” said Delphine Thizy, director of stakeholder engagement for  Target Malaria, the not-for-profit research consortium behind the project.

“Although this tool will not have an impact on malaria, it’s an important part of the fight and a conservative way to learn more about genetically modified mosquitoes.”

Factfile | Malaria

Malaria is a life-threatening disease caused by parasites that are transmitted to people through the bites of infected female Anopheles mosquitoes.

  • In 2016, there were roughly 216 million malaria cases worldwide (an increase of 5 million on 2015), and an estimated 445,000 malaria deaths.
  • In 2016, sub-Saharan Africa was home to 90% of malaria cases and 91% of malaria deaths.
  • More than two thirds (70%) of all malaria deaths occur in children under the age of five.
  • Symptoms usually appear 10–15 days after the infective mosquito bite and include fever, headache, chills and vomiting.
  • When properly treated, a patient with malaria can expect a complete recovery.
Region Estimated malaria cases (2016)
Africa 194 million
South East Asia 14.6 million
Eastern Mediterranean 4.3 million
Western Pacific 1.6 million
Americas 875,000
Europe 0

Source: World Health Organisation

The insects will be released in Bana, a village in the western part of the country close to the scientists’ research laboratory. Once they have been set free researchers will closely monitor the mosquitoes for 10 days, and on a monthly basis for up to a year, and hope to demonstrate to regulators that they behave as expected.

The exact timing of the release depends on how quickly scientists can bring enough modified mosquitoes to adulthood, as well as local weather conditions.

The experiment is the first step in a three phased programme to develop “gene drive” mosquitoes – a project that has received $70 million of funding from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation.

The eventual hope is that male mosquitoes, modified so that 90 per cent of their offspring are also male, will be released in the region. This would dramatically reduce the overall population as well as reducing malaria incidence, as it is the female mosquitoes which transmit the disease.

“The beauty of this approach for malaria control is that it’s very cost efficient, as you don’t need to constantly release more mosquitoes,” said Ms Thizy. “But that is a long term aim.”

The insects will be released in Bana, a village in the western part of the country close to the scientists’ research laboratory. Once they have been set free researchers will closely monitor the mosquitoes for 10 days, and on a monthly basis for up to a year, and hope to demonstrate to regulators that they behave as expected.

The exact timing of the release depends on how quickly scientists can bring enough modified mosquitoes to adulthood, as well as local weather conditions.

The experiment is the first step in a three phased programme to develop “gene drive” mosquitoes – a project that has received $70 million of funding from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation.

The eventual hope is that male mosquitoes, modified so that 90 per cent of their offspring are also male, will be released in the region. This would dramatically reduce the overall population as well as reducing malaria incidence, as it is the female mosquitoes which transmit the disease.

“The beauty of this approach for malaria control is that it’s very cost efficient, as you don’t need to constantly release more mosquitoes,” said Ms Thizy. “But that is a long term aim.”

First Published by the Telegraph

 

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