The government of Burkina Faso has given the green light for researchers to release genetically-engineered mosquitoes. The historic undertaking will be the first time any genetically-modified animals are released into the African wild.
On Wednesday, researchers announced that the government granted permission to initialize the group’s long-term plan to eradicate a specific malaria-transmitting species.
The genetically-altered, sterile male mosquitoes will be released this month, in Burkinabe village, Bana.
Genetically-engineered mosquitoes have been released in other parts of the world, namely Brazil and the Cayman Islands. In July, Australian scientists bred about 20 million mosquitoes, and infected the males with the Wolbachia bacteria that made them sterile, before releasing some three million across three specific towns for a Dengue experiment.
The aim of the release of the altered species is to foster an environment of trust among citizens, who are often skeptical of research, or science, the group explained.
The scientists in Burkina Faso, along with Mali and Uganda teams, hope to release a separate “gene drive” mosquito if the “trust experiment” proves to be successful. This species will be genetically-modified to carry malaria mutations to reduce the population of the disease carriers.
“We’re seeing all those other pieces that are as important, if not more important, than the science itself, lined up and actually being executed in sequence,” said Philip Welkhoff, malaria director at the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, which dedicated US$70 million to support the research teams in the three countries.
Malaria spreads when parasite-infected mosquitoes transmit the disease to humans.
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention statistics show that about 445,000 people — the majority of which were African children — died from malaria in 2016.