Gene Drive Organisms: Destructive and uncontrollable

Gene drive organisms have been greeted with a breathless euphoria by some geneticists, policy-makers and philanthropists. By manipulating the sexual reproductive system of organisms, the promoters of the technology claim they should be able to exterminate some species that are harmful to humans. However, once we look behind the headline-grabbing claims, it becomes clear that the use of this technology could put food systems and humanity at serious risk of irreversible harm.

A comprehensive new study published by three groups of scientists - Critical Scientists Switzerland, the European Network of Scientists for Social and Ecological Responsibility and the Association of German Scientists (Vereinigung Deutscher Wissenschaftler) - says that ‘many claimed features of gene drives are unrealistic and carry a high degree of scientific uncertainty and unpredictability’. Given the considerable gaps in knowledge, they suggest that the utmost caution be used when considering any experiments with gene drive organisms.

Gene drive organisms are an uncontrollable and potentially irreversible technology, designed to override the natural rules of inheritance. With the help of recently-developed genetic techniques, such as CRISPR/Cas9, modified genes can be forced into all the offspring of an organism within just a few generations. This makes it possible to manipulate, or even exterminate, entire populations and species, which would be likely to have particularly dramatic effects in organisms that reproduce quickly, such as many insect species.

We know from recent experimental releases that genes from insects the genetics of which have been modified can be transferred to other species of insects, a finding that has led to renewed calls for such experiments to be halted. The release of gene drive organisms in the environment appears likely to trigger a potentially uncontrollable genetic chain reaction that could exterminate species, alter entire ecosystems and decimate biodiversity.

UN demands safeguards

The risk posed by gene drives has been recognized by the signatories of the United Nations Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD). At its meeting in November 2018, the CBD decided that governments must seek the approval of ‘potentially affected indigenous peoples and local communities’ prior to considering any release of gene drive organisms, including experimental releases.

The CBD decision also requires that, before a gene drive organism could be released into the environment, a thorough risk assessment is carried out. With most countries lacking a regulatory system for the technology, it requires that new safety measures are put in place to prevent potential adverse effects.

However, there is no safe procedure that could be used to assess the risk of releasing such a dangerous technology. In the next two years, the CBD is expected to call for additional risk assessment of gene drive organisms. Taking into account the ‘no regrets’ principle (often known as the precautionary principle) the CSS/ENSSER/VDW expert group conclude that the proposal to release gene drive organisms should be rejected for the foreseeable future.

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Africa - the test area

Target Malaria, a research group funded by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, has chosen Burkina Faso in Africa as the first test ground for its experiments with gene drive mosquitoes.

Governments of developing countries have been lobbied extensively by the Gates Foundation to create conditions conducive to the release of genetic engineered products across the region.

In July 2019, Target Malaria released genetically modified mosquitoes in two villages in Burkina Faso. Although these insects did not contain the gene drive mechanism, Target Malaria described them as a step towards such a release. The national farmers' association Burkina Faso FENOP is very concerned about the scarcity of information and reports that their members are afraid to express their concerns publicly.

Mosquitoes – a dangerous gamble

A wide range of civil society organizations from Africa and many other countries have criticized Target Malaria for having begun conducting trials of such a risky technology in African countries, which have relatively weak biosafety controls and ethical safeguards. The practice, commonly known as ethics dumping, has previously been seen in the testing of potentially harmful medicines on Africans to the extent that safeguards against it have been suggested by the European Commission. In both cases, people who could be adversely affected are denied free and informed consent before they become subject to the experiments.

The slogan of gene drive organisms being able to combat malaria is aimed at gaining the acceptance of the technology, and genetic modification more generally, among the public worldwide. Anyone who praises this technology as a miracle cure in the fight against malaria is obscuring the fact that it is a disease that is largely caused by poverty. Addressing socioeconomic factors and involving local people in prevention measures are key to dealing with the disease. However, these remedies are in danger of being sidelined by the focus on simplistic technical ‘fixes’ that even could make things worse.

There is interest in gene drive organisms from global agri-chemical corporations because they predict that they will allow them open up new opportunities for themselves in the lucrative business of selling genetically engineering, and their accompanying chemicals, to farmers. The scientific findings leave no room for doubt: Gene drives have to be stopped until and unless their mode of operation has been fully researched and the risks fully understood. For now, proposals for their release must be rejected.

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