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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