Push Button, End Malaria

photo credit: Culex quinquefasciatus

With This Genetic Engineering Technology, There’s No Turning Back. Indeed.

People have talked about “let’s kill all the mosquitoes” or some variant thereon (by genetic engineering, to stop malaria) for some time. Now a research group at UC Irvine has developed mosquitoes with a gene that prevents malaria from reproducing, along with a “gene drive” that guarantees 99% heritability of the antimalarial gene. In their words: “Technology is no longer the limitation.”

There are several interesting implications in this.

  1. I admit to having shelved the kill-all-the-mosquitoes question under “call me when we work out the tech,” and admit to being surprised that we worked it out quite this quickly.
  2. I am moderately boggled by the possibilities of CRISPR-Cas9 gene editing and hope that the patent debate doesn’t derail what could be one of the most consequential biotech innovations in history. Related: spotted at MIT, the terrifying future.
  3. What is the correct governing body to decide whether humanity should genocide a species? The UN? The World Health Organization?
  4. This article on gene drives starts with a quote from the Book of Genesis, which seems apropos, and goes on to point out how gene drives are a natural phenomenon, that people have been talking about using them to wipe out mosquitoes for some time, that conventional mosquito eradication (i.e. widespread pesticide dispersal or habitat elimination leading to a drastic decrease in the mosquito population) doesn’t seem to have disrupted the ecosystem too badly, that humans do ecosystem-disrupting things all the time, and so on.
  5. That article contains a comment from a gene-drive researcher also mentioned in the TR article, Kevin Esfelt, that’s worth reading in its entirety. Citing a case where gene-drive-engineered fruit flies were almost released by a research organization that hadn’t read the literature on gene drives, he brings up an important concern: on a global level, how will society adapt when anyone with a lab can unilaterally alter the global ecosystem?
  6. The original Tech Review article says the mosquitoes weren’t native to California anyway so if they got out they wouldn’t be able to reproduce. Same argument in a slightly different context.
  7. Reminding ourselves of the stakes here: 214 million (!) malaria cases and nearly half a million deaths, mostly of young children in sub-Saharan Africa, in 2015 (WHO). GiveWell ranks the Against Malaria foundation #1 on its list of charities for the grinding incremental struggle they heroically conduct day after day against this horror.
  8. Supposedly this technique would be effective for wiping out Zika-carrying Aedis aegypti mosquitoes as well.
  9. Saying “oh, but maybe it might conceivably be used for terrorism, and therefore we shouldn’t do it” isn’t valid. CRISPR-Cas9 isn’t secret (terrorists don’t care about patents). The incremental increase in the risk of terrorism is minimal.

In the words of of one of the scientists, “Imagine we could design a mosquito that would magically cure cancer.” The hypothetical dangers, while real and considerable, cannot be considered in a vacuum — they must be balanced against the known concrete good that the elimination of malaria would do.

We have the power to end an ancient evil once and for all. Half a million deaths per year can be laid at its door. How many potential geniuses — engineers, scientists, poets and writers, doctors and teachers — fall to it each year?

It will be one of the finest chapters in the history of humankind when malaria is finally, forever, dead. We now have that power. Let’s not waste any time.