Caution Kills When Fighting Malaria

Mosquito induced malaria kills over 1 million people each year.

Fortunately, genetic engineering could greatly reduce this death toll.  As BBC news reports “A genetically modified (GM) strain of malaria-resistant mosquito has been created that is better able to survive than disease-carrying insects.  It gives new impetus to one strategy for controlling the disease: introduce the GM insects into wild populations in the hope that they will take over.”

Alas, it will likely take “10 to 20 years before transgenic mosquitoes are released into nature,” in part because “It’s very difficult to predict what will happen when we release these things.” 

Before releasing the mosquitoes scientists first want to conduct research that “address all the social, ethical and legal issues associated with releasing transgenic organisms into the environment.” (Emphasis mine.)

I’m not a biologist, but I find it almost impossible to believe that the expected negative side effects  of releasing the GM mosquitoes could even come close to the harm now caused by malaria.  If, therefore, GM mosquitoes could significantly reduce malaria deaths they should be quickly released into the environment even if there is a high chance that the GM mosquitoes will cause serious “social, ethical and environmental harm.”

I suspect that those who would take a cautious approach to releasing GM mosquitoes suffer from status quo bias and give much greater weight to avoiding new negative consequences than they do to eliminating existing harms.  Others, I suspect, give less relative weight to the existing harms because these harms are "natural" whereas any damage that comes about as a side effect of releasing GM mosquitoes would be man-made and thus unnatural.

If a researcher working on the malaria fighting mosquitoes is reading this post I urge you to take it upon yourself to release the GM mosquitoes as soon as they have a high probability of working even if doing so would violate the law and your colleagues’ trust.  You probably won’t be able to release them over a wide area.  But if you can show that the GM mosquitoes are safe and effective then they will likely be released on a large scale sooner than if you had not acted.

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  • Tiiba

    My worry is that if they release the mosquitoes, they might be held liable for any harm the mosquitos cause. It wouldn’t be logical to hold them liable, but you know what people are like.

  • Based on the BBC article, it sounds like the researchers are many years away from something that they think might actually work in the field. (Their current mosquito is resistant to the wrong kind of malaria and also probably wouldn’t compete well enough in the wild.) So this discussion seems a bit premature.

    Also, “take it upon yourself to release the GM mosquitoes even if doing so would violate the law” — that sort of thing is unlikely to do any good. This kind of work is totally dependent on the government, both for funding and because of environmental regulations. A cowboy act like that would have negative effects on both funding and regulation, regardless of the actual impact of the release (presumably negligible). In the past, accidental releases of GM organisms have led to significant negative media and political attention, despite the absence of any impacts (e.g., StarLink corn).

  • Or, you could just use DDT which is known to work and is cheap.

  • Divya

    What would your reaction be if the effect of releasing the genetically modified mosquitoes is that within 2 years, due to cross-breeding, there are mosquitoes that now have higher chances of survival along with being a disease carrier? Would you still urge them to release these mosquitoes “even if doing so would violate the law and your colleagues’ trust” ? I am no genetics expert, but I definitely support the scientists cautious view in this case. We have seen the harmful effects of introducing non-local flora and fauna into some ecological region – those were also done with the aim of tackling one problem.

  • Tim Tyler

    Re: What would your reaction be if the effect of releasing the genetically modified mosquitoes is that within 2 years, due to cross-breeding, there are mosquitoes that now have higher chances of survival along with being a disease carrier?

    Not possible: look at the proposed mechanism:

    the approach exploits the fact that the health of infected mosquitoes is itself compromised by the parasite they spread. Insects that cannot be invaded by the parasite are therefore likely to be fitter and out-compete their disease-carrying counterparts.”

    Problems would involve adaptation by the parasite – which would only put us back where we started.

  • Vilhelm S

    Of course, the individual researchers and policy makers are probably behaving perfectly rationally. The problem rather is that incentives are skewed: the fame you get for being part of the project that solved malaria is rather outweighed by that fact that releasing the mosquitos is liable to get you lynched. 🙂

    “Lynched” is not complete hyberbole, btw. There was apparently a big US aid project in India in the 1960s which was supposed to use DDT to combat malaria: it was scrapped very quickly indeed after rumors started circulating in the country-side that the USA was going to poison everyone. Malaria researchers today are quite concerned that the same thing will happen again — the phrase “genetically modified mosquitos” is not a public relations winner. This of course was long after DDT had been shown to be safe: the problem is that information from the government is not trusted. Cowboy tactics by rogue scientists is not going to solve that problem.

  • Eadwacer

    In systems theory there are concepts such as “unintended consequences” and “emergent behavior”. They recognize that in a complex system it is impossible to predict all of the outcomes – in many cases you just have to run the system and see. So, in the “Suppose in two years…” discussion above, the outcome was described as ‘not possible’. I’ll accept that. But what that really says is that ‘there is no concievable way that bad things can happen’. All that means is that our imaginations and our knowledge are deficient. What always happens is that some ‘inconcievable’ event occurs. I am not sure where the ‘GM corn kills butterflies’ debate stands right now, but I’ll bet that when they were developing it nobody said “OK then, butterflies, what about butterflies?” The GM corn impact may be negligible or the original findings may be wrong, but it’s an example of how we do need to go slow when dealing with the infinite possibilities of Nature.

  • jb

    Sure, you just release the mosquitos without testing them, and then, next thing you know, the GM mosquitos bite some crazed neo-nazi, and infuses him with Super-Mosquito powers, and now we have a new super villian to contend with: The Bloodsucker.

    I swear, when will these scientists ever learn! Have 50 years of comic books taught us _nothing_?

  • It’s the same thing with the FDA and similar regulatory bodies. Nobody wants to be the one that approved something that turned out bad, so they’d rather block life-saving drugs than approve them even if the risk to lives is much smaller than the risk of not approving them.

  • Drew

    I find the argument that genetically modified organisms being unnatural is absurd. Any genetically modified organism could come about through natural evolution. If nature created a breed of flower that killed butterflies, would we be hunting it down and eradicating it? I doubt it. There is also a strange distinction in people’s minds between GMOs and selectively bred animals. I wonder if there would be less caution if the new species were “naturally” bred from existing ones?

    I find that when dealing with GMOs there is a huge status-quo bias, as if this state of nature is the perfect state of nature and it should never change. Of course, that’s basically what the Bible tells us.

  • Another aspect to consider is whether there are other means to control malaria that may be less risky than releasing altered mosquitos. If something goes wrong with the mosquitos, you may have a very hard time fixing it. Remember killer bees. You have to balance this risk against the possibility that other fixes could play a significant role without the danger of getting out of control. Mosquito nets are said to be very helpful.

  • Nate

    The article says equal numbers of genetically modified and ordinary mosquitoes were allowed to feed on malaria-infected mice; more of the GM mosquitoes survived, and after nine generations 70% of the insects were GM.

    70% of what number relative to the number get if you leave out the GM mosquitoes? 70% of the final being GM mosquitoes doesn’t reveal if the number of ordinary mosquitoes was less than it would be without GM mosquitoes. Maybe the GM mosquitoes just increase the total number of mosquitoes.

    Where’s the team working on disease-resistant dragonflies?

  • Tom


    Humans are part of nature.

  • Si

    “I wonder if there would be less caution if the new species were “naturally” bred from existing ones?”

    How would you propose to naturally breed, say, a fruit fly with a tomato?

  • David J. Balan

    I think we should all at least be able to agree with the principle that the bigger the existing harm, the more willing you should be to try a risky remedy. Since the existing harm of malaria is unspeakably awful, it seems hard believe that any GM malaria-free mosquito that would actually succeed in the wild wouldn’t be worth any attendant risk, though I would want the opinion of some folks more qualified than I to judge such things before I just let the super-bugs go.

    There are, of course, some crazy people who would oppose such a measure even if they *knew* that nothing bad was going to happen, just on the grounds that it’s against nature (or something). That’s a whole other kettle of fish from the cautious (though as James Miller points out almost certainly far too cautious) people who are simply worried about actual bad effects.

  • Mike

    “I’m not a biologist, but I find it almost impossible to believe that the expected negative side effects of releasing the GM mosquitoes could even come close to the harm now caused by malaria.”

    That’s because you’re doing it wrong. Is it that hard to imagine a now more robust mosquito eventually cross-breeding with the ‘natural’ mosquito and making an even harder to eradicate malaria transferring mosquito?

  • Mike

    And also, history is filled with our mistakes of rushing to introduce new species into an ecosystem without stopping to think of the negative repercussions…which have, time and time again, often resulted in worse problems than the initial one trying to be solved.

  • KevinH

    There is one thing to keep in mind. There is a theoretically upper bound on the number of people releasing these mosquitoes could save. However, there is no theoretical upper bound on the number of people releasing these mosquitoes could kill. That changes the game a little bit and makes it smart to be cautious. For example, what if releasing the mosquitoes had a 95% chance of saving 1 million lives a year, but had a full 5% chance of killing 20 million. I’m not pretending that those numbers are anywhere close to an accurate, but used as an extreme example to show that there are logical, statistically valid reasons for being cautious and preferring the devil you know to the devil you don’t.

  • Hmmm… Maybe if the mosquitos could also be made more susceptible to pesticedes, but then they probably wouldn’t be “better able to survive”.

  • KevinH, why would there be an upper bound on the number of people saved? We have no idea what will happen with current mosquitos or malaria naturally over the next 10 or 20 years. Malaria may mutate into a less harmful parasite and become benign, or one that is simply less harmful to mosquitos therefor more pervasive. Mosquitos may (will) become resistant to pesticides…

  • Are we not, by keeping the malaria and mosquito populations large and active, greatly increasing the probability of disasterous changes.

    Basically, the only risk here is that the mechanism that prevents the mosquitos from getting malaria makes it more susceptible to another more dangerous disease. Well, besides that the plan might not be ready and simply won’t work.

  • Mike

    The post about DDT is pretty on point. James Miller can’t imagine what harm the mosquitoes could cause that would deem it worth risking the lives of millions. That exact same logic was applied to the widespread use of DDT. Remember, the American South used to be a malaria zone. It is still not conclusive what cancers DDT may cause, or exactly what other harmful effects it has on humans, but the effect on the environment is well known. Just ask any Bald Eagle, if you can find one. I for one would rather not breathe the stuff.

    Now, these mosquitoes may very well be worth the risk – it may be worth the risk by a long shot – but the point is the researches don’t know that yet, and neither do any of us.

  • Phillip Huggan

    I’d want studies first because of the large weight of biomass mosquitoes make up. It’s easy to collapse ecosystems here.
    As posters here and scientists have pointed out, to date malaria has won every arms race and could/would simply adapt. Then future GMOs strategies that would’ve worked on a weaker insect might not on the bolstered insect. It is very easy to imagine swarms of malaria-mutant insects descending on temperate populations as well as tropical.

    Europe is being too conservative in their GMO agriculture ban, but there are very real dangers in engineering artificial environments. J.Miller, what is to stop these mosquitoes from killing off the world’s livestock and people?
    DDT and mosquito nets are available solutions.

  • Tom

    “what is to stop these mosquitoes from killing off the world’s livestock and people?”

    That, and what if piranha cross-bred with flying fish? Or what if toxic waste built up in a swamp and caused giant leaches to kill townsfolk? Bad movie plots could result!

  • Rob

    “I’m not a biologist,” FAIL

    The history of science is littered with the fallout of people not conceiving *how* doing something could be worse than not doing it, and then acting prematurely. If you act now, you will either be lucky or very wrong. If you act after all reasonable doubt has been satisfied, you may find there had been no danger, but *with the knowledge available at the time* it was still the best course of action. Then you can deal with some dummies who don’t understand hindsight.

  • Phillip Huggan

    To give two applied examples, antibiotics were over-prescribed.
    Western Grains Research Foundation funded a grant that unearthed a wheat strain resistant to a blight, but also cautioned it might only work for a few years as opposed to a decade or more, if it is overused or used improperly.
    Here, you might unintentionally make malaria harder to eradicate if (as is the chief objection for not doing studies) you make mosquitoes stronger. Increasing biomass higher up the foodchain tends to squeeze out higher-up-the-chain predators. For instance, if you give a competitive advantage to birds that eat dragonflies that eat mosquitoes, birds that eat locusts that eat crops, might lose their niche. It is hardly science fiction to imagine releasing hardy mosquitoes into the environment will hasten malaria’s spread into Meditterannean Europe or SE USA, I think.

  • Phillip Huggan

    “Increasing biomass higher up”
    Typo: meant “lower down”. I’ve learned about unintended consequences recently while studying agriculture. I just learned about the 8 essential amino acids. Before June, my agriculture policy prescriptions might’ve jeopardized a balanced diet.
    The thing about Franken organisms is, public apprehension starts off hostile, and tends to mellow with time. Whereas, our genetic prowess will only grow.

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