Malaria is a known killer that is transmitted to people by infected mosquitoes. In Zambia, we have just under four million malaria cases every year and about 15,000 deaths. The WHO estimates that malaria can decrease GDP by up to 1.3% and malaria accounts for up to 40% of public health expenditure. These are grim and real statistics and with high drug resistance and ever more deaths from a preventable disease, it is understandable that someone out there is looking for a lasting solution by attacking the medium that spreads the disease. The mosquito itself.
Now, NGOs and environment activists have long been fighting the continued advance of Monsanto - the baddest of bad guys in the genetics industry and this is just the kind of news that enrages them and puts a holy fear in me. I chose my words carefully. Maybe it's because I am a social scientist, am fairly religious and believe in conspiracy theories, but I just don't think this is a good idea at all. No matter what scientific breakthroughs are made, I do not believe we know enough about life to mess with certain things.
I am not a purist and I know that the vegetables I buy in Shoprite are genetically modified which is why they keep for a month, whereas the ones from Melisa shrivel and die in three days. I buy from both stores. So, I cannot claim to be ignorant of the fact the genetically modified organisms and products exist in my daily life.
I don't like to think of myself as irrational, but the thought of a genetically modified killer insect, albeit one engineered to no longer kill is one of those issues where I don't even want to think about the number of things that can go wrong with a plan like this. You release a swarm of genetically modified insects from the lab into the untested real world. A developing country (granted, the test site of Malaysia is a middle income country), with huge populations, poor health systems, limited facilities, lack of drugs and understaffed health centres and I think you have a potential recipe for disaster.
It could all go well, that is true, but movies like the eighties classic, The Fly come to mind. Many people don't realise that an oft quoted line, actually comes from this movie - Be Afraid, Be Very Afraid! Interestingly, Jeff Goldblum went on to star in Jurassic Park, another movie about scientists playing with nature and altering genetic makeup of species in order to create something else. In this instance, the dinosaurs bred when they weren't supposed to. Goldblum's character, Ian Malcolm when questioning the wisdom of the original plan comments that "life, uh... finds a way". And later, he also says "...your scientists were so preoccupied with whether or not they could, they didn't stop to think if they should".
In a well meaning move, we are taking an insect and removing it's ability to transmit a killer disease in the hope that this insect will eventually come to dominate and though the mosquito will continue to exist, the ones that transmit malaria will die before they can. It does sound like a really good plan. But, I just can' get over the 'what if it isn't' part?