Back in 2016, the eggs of 5,000 genetically-modified mosquitoes were discreetly shipped to Burkina Faso for an experiment seeking out new methods to combat malaria. The move has remained a source of controversy in the West African country ever since.
The eggs were sent to a laboratory in the southern Burkinabé city of Bobo-Dioulasso by the Imperial College of London to be used by Target Malaria, billed as an "innovative study" aimed at developing a new method for fighting against malaria in Africa.
But Ali Tapsoba – the spokesperson for the Citizens' Collective for Agroecology that represents some 40 associations with a public stance against genetically-modified organisms – believes those mosquitoes entered the country clandestinely.
"We use the term 'clandestinely' because, according to the Cartagena Protocol, the arrival of a GMO must be preceded by a national debate, but the National Biosafety Agency gave the authorization without prior public consultation," Tapsoba told EFE.
"We got the information when we talked with the people in charge of Target Malaria. From that moment on, we realized the dangerousness of the situation and we began to denounce it," the spokesperson added.
The project has received funds stemming from the United States, including donors such as the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, the Open Philanthropy Project Fund and funds from the Silicon Valley Community Foundation.
For its advocates, Target Malaria is an opportunity to eradicate a disease that affects 90 percent of the African continent, with 216 million cases registered in 2016, according to World Health Organization data.
But its detractors believe that these mosquitoes "will be a catastrophe for the country," in terms of both the environment and public health.
In the initial phase, the batch of genetically-altered mosquitoes exclusively consists of males who have been sterilized. When they attempt to mate with the females – which are the ones that transmit the disease – they cannot reproduce, making the total population decrease.
The plan is to eventually release 10,000 genetically-modified mosquitoes in three villages of Burkina Faso over the next few months as an experiment, after it was authorized by the National Biosafety Agency (ANB) in Aug. 2018.
These villages share some requisites: they are accessible throughout the year, they are isolated from other provinces and are not very big.
"The sterile genetically-modified male mosquitoes that we are going to release are not necessarily the final product that we would be using to really have an impact on malaria," Abdoulaye Diabate, head researcher at Target Malaria in Burkina Faso, told EFE.
The final product would involve using so-called Gene Drive technology which, according to a report in favor of using the technology published by the African Union last year, is based on the system of biased genetic inheritance that accelerates the transmission of a certain genetic trait of the progenitor to the offspring through sexual reproduction.
Tapsoba questioned whether these genetic changes would affect the food chain of the ecosystem or whether the destruction of these mosquitoes without a substitute would cause the species to be replaced by another, more dangerous species.
He further argued that these sterile mosquitoes could probably disturb other animals or humans in some way or the other, adding that these were "mere questions" and that "while we don't have proof to show these drawbacks, they haven't shown us through scientific studies that this is not possible, either."
Diabate, however, insisted that "Target Malaria takes safety matters very seriously."
"In everything, no matter what it is, there exists certain risk, including the water that we drink. The most important thing is that we are working on a specific product and we take all the needed precautions to analyze potential risks and to be able to control them, if necessary," said the researcher.
Moreover, the ANB has the last word. "If the agency approves it, it means that they have taken into account the risks and have estimated that they are minimal and our work has included all the necessary safeguards to be able to manage it," he said.
The sterile male mosquitoes have a very limited ability to spread, as their life is short and they do not have offspring.
However, Diabate warned that the final product with Gene Drive could have an impact in Burkina Faso and traverse borders.
This means that the controversy now not only involves issues like the environment, health and ethics, but is also affected by different policies stemming from regional and international GMO regulations.
For Tapsoba, the political aspect goes beyond that: he openly describes the initiative as "colonial medicine."
"In Africa and Burkina, we have plants that can prevent and cure malaria. And we shouldn't forget that the best way to fight against it is a good hygiene and sanitation policy," he said.
"We want the international community to know that there is an endogenous capacity to cure malaria in Africa, that researchers have found plants that can cure them. We only need financial means at our disposal to end the disease," Tapsoba added.
Diabate, meanwhile, said that the time needed to obtain the final product could be up to 10 years, a time frame which was "not necessarily related to the technology being too difficult but the fact that one has to inform everyone at the national, regional and international level" to reach a consensus. EFE-EPA