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.
This is the first step in a program 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.
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 eventual hope is that male mosquitoes, modified so that 90 percent 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.
While Target Malaria have faced some skepticism about the approach within Burkina Faso, this has mainly been from farmers who are concerned about GM crops.
"We’ve had amazing support from the local community, and ahead of our regulatory application they gave us their approval in a local consultation”, said Ms Thizy.
As for safety, the mosquitoes released at this stage have been confirmed to be no more dangerous than the natural population, and cannot pass modified genes on to humans.
"Mosquitoes are one of the most dangerous species on earth, causing the highest number of deaths,” said Ms Thizy. “So of course this has risks. But genetically modified mosquitoes are no more risky than natural counterparts, and have no added toxicity.”