Everyone hates mosquitoes. Literally everyone. If you say you don’t hate mosquitoes, you’re either lying or your brain has broken and you should go to a hospital right now. It’s human nature. The memory of a thousand itchy, painful mosquito bites every summer, combined with some ancient, atavistic repulsion we carried with us when we climbed down from the trees. Mosquitoes carry disease. Most notably, to the modern reader, they carry malaria. According to an article in Nature, malaria may have killed half of the human beings who have ever lived. By proxy, that means mosquitoes may be responsible for half of all human deaths. And it’s not just malaria they carry. Dengue fever, West Nile virus, chikungunya, encephalitis, etc. The list is long and uncomfortable. Regardless of whether they’re responsible for half of all human deaths, they remain far and away the most deadly animal on the planet to human beings, and that list includes other humans. It’s no wonder we want mosquitoes to stop existing and, luckily for our desire to play God, biotechnology has now reached a point where that’s possible.
Billionaire, philanthropist, and would-be speciocide Bill Gates is leading the charge to use a controversial new technology called gene drives to end malaria. How would gene drives end malaria? By ending the species of mosquitoes that carry malaria. Gene drives are artificial genes inserted into mosquito populations that, within a couple generations, renders the population sterile and effectively done-for. Pretty powerful stuff. Maybe frighteningly powerful stuff is a better term. That’s why the United Nations is considering a test-ban on gene drives. The proposal was brought to the UN Convention on Biodiversity in Egypt last week.
The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation sees the panic over gene drives as ignorant and dangerous, in that it could stand in the way of saving millions of lives in the most vulnerable and impoverished parts of the world. From an open letter to the UN convention published by the Outreach Network for Gene Drive Research:
As the Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD) meets for the 14th Conference of the Parties (COP14) in Egypt in November, decision-makers from countries around the world will have an opportunity to reaffirm the importance of enabling research to support responsible innovation and evidence-based decision-making.
Closing the door on research by creating arbitrary barriers, high uncertainty, and open-ended delays will significantly limit our ability to provide answers to the questions policy-makers, regulators and the public are asking. The moratorium suggested at CBD on field releases would prevent the full evaluation of the potential uses of gene drive. Instead, the feasibility and modalities of any field evaluation should be assessed on a case-by-case basis.
Ecological groups compare gene drive technology to the atom bomb: a technology so powerful and with so many unknown-unknowns that once it’s let loose into the wild, there’s no telling what sort of unintended consequences there may be. For one, the concept of eradicating entire species wholesale should set off alarm bells in anyone’s head. The earth is an unfathomably complex machine, with each part serving a vital purpose and mosquitoes should be no different.
Except, some scientists don’t think mosquitoes fit into that model. Disease-vector mosquitoes aren’t keystone species. Meaning that many scientists think the ecological impact of their removal would be negligible. The world would keep turning, just without malaria. But what then? By all accounts, gene drives are relatively simple with modern technology. If it works, it will be very easy to say, “See how well that went? No more malaria. Let’s try it on something else.” That’s the real danger, according to MIT biologist Kevin Esvelt:
“This is why I hate the malaria problem. It makes the technology so tempting to use.”
The UN seems unlikely to accept the proposed test-ban, but they may decide to impose a moratorium on gene drives. It seems like, as with most terrifying future technology, it’s a question of when, not if, it will be used. The Gates Foundation has a target of 2029 for the first release of gene drive mosquitoes into the wild, and by then things will likely be weird enough that we won’t even notice.