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New genetic extinction experiment raises environmental and health alarms

Friends of the Earth Africa and Friends of the Earth U.S. call for a moratorium on the release of gene drives, citing urgent concerns about ecological and health impacts

WASHINGTON – Researchers from Imperial College London announced today that they have used a gene drive — a risky, experimental genetic extinction technology — to eliminate a population of mosquitoes in their laboratory. The announcement raises serious concerns about how and why these potentially dangerous genetic engineering techniques are used in the real world. Companies like Target Malaria hope to create a gene drive mosquito that could be released into local environments, despite objections from communities on the ground.

Mariann Bassey, coordinator of the Food Sovereignty program at Friends of the Earth Africa, and chair of the Alliance for Food Sovereignty in Africa, issued the following statement in response:

To solve the malaria crisis, we should focus on the least risky and most effective solutions, not experiment with ecosystems with little regard for the potentially new environmental and health consequences. We need to support projects that have resulted in reducing malaria rates without putting ecosystems and people across the globe at even more risk.

Dana Perls, senior Food and Agriculture campaigner at Friends of the Earth U.S., issued the following statement in response:

Gene drives could have serious and potentially irreversible impacts on public health and the environment. We need to stop these risky experiments from being rushed out of the lab and into the environment and our communities.

Decisions about how to solve public health problems must be made by the communities affected, not outside corporations and institutions. Effective and affordable policies and programs for controlling and eliminating malaria are already available and carry none of the risks of gene drives.

A growing body of science has raised concerns about the serious potential environmental, health and ethical impacts of gene drives. Ecological risks include irreversible contamination across related species, ecological disruption as a result of eliminating a species and a lack of predictability about how gene drives will interact with ecosystems outside of the controlled lab environment. In the current case, the gene targeted by the gene drive is common to all mosquitoes and may even show identical sequences among close relatives, which are also able to interbreed. This suggests that the gene drive may jump to other related mosquitoes, also eliminating those species.

In 2016, the International Union for the Conservation of Nature voted to adopt a de facto moratorium on supporting or endorsing research into gene drives for conservation or other purposes until the IUCN has fully assessed their impacts. Scientists, environmental experts and organizations from around the globe have advocated for a halt to proposals for the use of gene drive technologies in conservation due to concerns about their potential impacts on human health and the environment.

Other less risky approaches to eliminating malaria have already shown success. In 2018, the World Health Organization certified Paraguay as malaria-free, citing the country’s focus on policies and programs to control and eliminate malaria at the community levels and “investing in robust, sustainable systems for health.”

Communications Contact: Erin Jensen, (202) 222-0722, ejensen@foe.org

Expert Contacts: Dana Perls, Friends of the Earth U.S, 510-978-4425, dperls@foe.org; Mariann Bassey, Friends of the Earth Africa, Alliance for Food Sovereignty in Africa, +234-703-449-5940, annybassi@yahoo.com

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