Scientists are finding out gene drive expertise to struggle malaria

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Scientists hope that the introduction of gene drive technology could reduce mosquito populations as they encourage new innovations in the fight against malaria, a deadly disease widespread in sub-Saharan Africa.

According to the World Health Organization (WHO), around 94 percent of all malaria cases and deaths worldwide in 2019 occurred in Africa. Over two-thirds of the deaths were in children under five.

Gene drive technology – genetic engineering that modifies malaria mosquitoes so that they can pass their genes on to large mosquito populations – could potentially help eliminate malaria in Africa, according to Krystal Birungi, a field entomology coordinator for the nonprofit research consortium Target. Uganda.

“In a way, our best tools today are also our oldest, which means innovation has to scale.”

Fredros Okumu, Entomologist and Director of Science, Ifakara Health Institute, Tanzania

“It’s an inexpensive way to reduce malaria vectors and it’s easy to implement because the mosquitoes do the work themselves,” said Birungi during a Roll Back Malaria Partnership virtual bootcamp on innovations in malaria control on November 15th.

While the technology is not yet on the market and needs to find public acceptance, if rolled out it could complement existing malaria interventions such as insecticide-treated nets and indoor sprays and help reduce malaria cases, Birungi said.

“We know that there is little understanding of any new technology. So it is necessary to increase interaction with people in order to increase acceptance until such products are available [on] the market, ”she says.

According to Fredros Okumu, entomologist and director of science at Ifakara Health Institute in Tanzania, the advancement of gene drive technology comes at a time when the pace of innovation in malaria control has slowed worldwide.

“In a way, our best tools today are also our oldest, which means innovations need to be scaled up,” says Okumu.

The WHO recommends “better targeted interventions, new tools and more resources” in its 2020 malaria report. […] change the trajectory of [the] Fight against Malaria ”worldwide and warns of the COVID-19 pandemic, could set progress even further.

Okumu explains that existing malaria prevention tools like mosquito nets, indoor sprays and larvicides need to be changed through better management, research and innovation to significantly reduce malaria cases.

He adds, “For us to make the change we want to get to zero [malaria cases], we need to have a transformative tool that allows us not only to reduce the prevalence by 20 percent, 30 percent, or even 50 percent, but also something that is really effective at containing the transmission of malaria. ”

Last month, the WHO approved the first malaria vaccine, RTS, S / ASO1, and recommended it for children in sub-Saharan Africa and other malaria-endemic areas.

On December 2, Gavi, the Vaccine Alliance’s board of directors approved an investment of $ 155.7 million.

“The big question now is how do we put this? [vaccine] along with mosquito nets and interior residue spray and other upcoming innovations to bring us the maximum benefit. The art of mixing these interventions is a core component of our future transformation, ”says Okumu.

Despite the slow pace of innovation in malaria control, “progress is being made in providing new tools,” said Nick Hamon, CEO of the Innovative Vector Control Consortium.

Hamon attributes this slow pace to the logistical processes an innovation must go through before a product is commercially available, and the need to ensure that when the innovation hits the market, it is effective and completely safe to use is.

“It’s slow because developing an insecticide is more or less the same process as developing a drug and doing any safety testing,” Hamon said during the virtual event.

This piece was produced by SciDev.Net’s Global Desk.

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