When I first learnt of the idea to genetically modify mosquitoes (GMMs) as a strategy for controlling the diseases transmitted by these much-maligned insects, I thought it was refreshingly innovative. Little did I know that scientists had been fiddling with mosquitoes, and other insects, for the same reason long before I was born.
In 1951, Bushland and Hopkins demonstrated that screwworm flies could be sterilized with x-rays, and by 1959 Edward Knipling had proposed the concept of releasing factory-produced sterile insects to control the populations of certain pests. Since then the sterile insect technique (SIT) has undergone substantial modification and now includes the production of transgenic insects. There have been many releases of sterile insects, on virtually every continent, with varying degrees of success in the control of insect pests.
GMMs in Nigeria: What scientists think
The recent publication by fellow Nigerian scientists, Patricia Okorie and colleagues, drew my attention to the issue of GMMs. With over 100 million people at risk of malaria, dengue and yellow fever, Nigeria has the largest burden of mosquito-borne diseases in Africa. But mosquito control programs in Africa have seen little success because of insecticide resistance and difficulties in scaling up successful strategies such as the use of long-lasting insecticide treated bed-nets. Thus Okorie and colleagues thought it wise to sample the opinions of other Nigerian researchers with regards to the GMM alternative.
Interestingly, only 27 of the 164 Nigerian scientists sampled in the Okorie study supported the release of GMMs in Nigeria. The vast majority were skeptical about a potential release. Most of the skeptics were concerned that GMMs could spread in an uncontrolled manner beyond the release sites. Other concerns raised were related to the production of hybrids with unknown consequences, the possibility that GMMs could transmit unknown diseases, resistance to insecticides, harm to the ecosystem, and, of course, the cost of such an initiative.
However, with further analysis, the Okorie team concluded that although majority of participants were skeptical about GMMS, most would encourage the strategy provided there were contingency measures to remove the GMMs if an unanticipated risk became evident during the course of the release.
… and what critics say
Not surprisingly, Okorie’s study has been criticized as not being representative of the views of Nigerian scientists. Georgina Mwansat, an entomologist at the University of Jos notes that sampling only 164 researchers from only 2 of Nigeria’s 36 states “is not enough to form an opinion on all of scientists in the country”. I think so too. Since the study was conducted in a limited geographical and cultural space, it is also very likely that Okorie heard from a very small proportion of Nigeria’s more than 500 ethnicities.
Okorie’s team may also have been talking to people from an age group that may be quickly losing touch with the national public opinion. With a population median age of 17.8 years and in these days of widespread internet social media activity, it is likely that the more general perspective on GMMs in Nigeria will be shaped by people younger than the age of 40.
A social experiment
It is this understanding that informed my recent attempt to conduct an opinion sample among Nigerian users of social media. To be clear, this was not meant to be a scientific exercise. I just wanted to hear what young Nigerians from different ethnic groups in different vocations and at different locations thought about the use of GMMs as a malaria control strategy. My query received 46 comments from 20 Nigerians from at least 9 ethnic groups, in 12 vocations, living on 3 continents.
Before embarking on my social experiment, I thought that the average Nigerian, indeed the average African, would be bothered about the hidden risks involved in unleashing such phantoms into his or her environment. I believed there would be immediate concerns that the novel insects were a Western operation aimed at decimating the African population in order to take over resources. I expected religious respondents to preach vehemently against allowing our lands be used for experiments by scientist who want to play God. I was sure that many would agree that corrupt governments would ask for a bribe to release the infamous arthropods without the peoples’ consent.
My hypotheses were not far from the comments I received.
What the game changers think
One of the respondents to the idea of releasing GMMs in Nigeria wondered if I had checked with the witches. A reference to the occult was one of the reactions that I expected among Nigerians who are asked to consider genetic engineering. Contrary to expectation though, most respondents did not say anything diabolic about GMMs, although one person reminded me that mosquitoes were created by God for a purpose. She strongly advised me not to do something that would annoy the almighty.
Although none of the comments I received pointed a finger at the West, there were concerns about the role of corrupt government officials in dealing with a potential GMM release in Nigeria. Barieene George asked,
“This mosquito and our Nigerian government, won’t they be manipulated and corrupted to eat up open-minded people like us?”
Beyond my own hypotheses, the opinion sample yielded some other insightful thoughts. Most respondents were concerned about the balance of the ecosystem. Itoro Akpan-Iquot put it clearly:
“You probably don’t want to mess with the balance of nature. Nature hates a vacuum.”
She pointed me to the outcome of the mosquito eradication efforts in India. A major resurgence of malaria occurred after the slackening of the Indian DDT-based eradication program in the 1970s.
In contrast, Steve Amaeshi prefers chemical-based mosquito eradication to anything genetically modified. He
“would rather see DDT evolve into a better product like fluoride in water to reduce the effect of chlorine. Quite apprehensive about anything that is GM.”
His apprehension was shared by other respondents. Prince Effiong reminded me of a movie in which a virus wiped out all cancers but ended up creating rabid zombies. In complete refusal of my GMM idea, Emmanuel Ekanem asked,
“Utibe you want to replace [regular mosquitoes] with ones that transmit HIV and/or Ebola? [Please] leave the mosquitoes alone!”
Perhaps to practically demonstrate their skepticism, some respondents suggested that I conduct a pilot release in my own village home.
Yet the economic consequences of a GMM release in Nigeria was not lost on certain respondents. One commentator thought it would be a good idea but reminded me that a malaria vaccine was on the verge of approval. Another pointed me in the direction of the mosquito repellants she distributes.
However, the responses I received were not entirely unsupportive of the GMM idea. Several comments critically analyzed the feasibility of the approach. I even found volunteers for my potential release project.
In the end, the comment that most resonated with me was made by Azubuike Chukwuemeka. He said
“We’ll look into this matter after the [February] elections.”
It’s true. Government and governance has always been the most important thing on the minds of many Nigerians.
Innovation, governance and the people
The use of biotechnology to genetically modify insect vectors for the purpose of human disease control may be a refreshingly innovative idea but it takes more than innovation to solve public health problems. There is need for a broad-based policy approach that includes grassroots participation.
For Nigerians, and most people in the developing world, the opportunity to participate in policy-shaping dialogues around technologies and interventions that impact their lives, will only become available when votes begin to count.
Image courtesy U.S Department of Agriculture
This article was first published by the University of Michigan Risk Science Center.