Gene drive mosquitoes designed to eliminate malaria – but governance is complex, new film shows

A radical new biotechnology could eliminate the mosquitoes that cause malaria, but in Uganda – where malaria is the leading cause of death – a lack of information and debate is undermining public debate on the issue.

Professor Sarah Hartley’s new research documentary Gene Drive Mosquitoes for Malaria Control, which will be screened at Exeter Phoenix on 29 April, looks at this potentially game-changing technology through conversations with Ugandan stakeholders and explores the complexities of governance.

Gene drive mosquitoes are being researched in Uganda by scientists at the Ugandan Virus Research Institute, and could soon be trialled in the wild – making Uganda one of the first countries to do so.

Gene drive targets the particular genes in the malaria-transmitting female mosquito, making it unable to reproduce or transmit malaria.

But unlike in other forms of genetic modification, the altered gene is inherited by more than 95% of offspring, which means the trait increases over time – allowing it to spread through a whole population. This means we could change the mosquito at a scale never seen before.

Gene drive offers the possibility of controlling malaria, but the decision to release gene drive mosquitoes into the wild hinges not only on the science but on social, political and environmental issues and the support of the public.

Gene Drive Mosquitoes for Malaria Control – Promo from Tom Law on Vimeo.

The film explores the complexity of gene drive governance in Uganda, building on social science research from the University of Exeter and Makerere University.

This includes a recent study in Science Communication co-authored by Professor Hartley, which attributes the low levels of public engagement in gene drive technology to the lack of independent information available.

Research underpinning the film used media analysis, interviews and focus groups to uncover a strong desire for more information about gene drive, coupled with a paucity of public information.

“This means that the people most likely to be affected by the technology do not have access to information about it,” said Professor Hartley. “This lack of information is situated in a context where there are weak information infrastructures and a sensitivity among elites to political controversies surrounding gene technologies in Uganda. If Ugandans are to have a role in decision-making about gene drive, they need access to more information about this technology.”

The film, beautifully shot in Uganda by filmmaker Tom Law, asks if the country is ready to embrace gene drive technology.

“We need access to channels where we can talk about it and enlighten people”, says Professor Stella Neema, an academic expert from Makerere University interviewed in the film. “Science without humanity can be quite dangerous, and at present there is very little public debate, which could make it very difficult for communities to consent to trials and any potential future deployment.”

The film will be shown at Exeter Phoenix on 29 April at 6.30 and will be followed by a panel event and refreshments (get tickets here).

A second screening and panel event, hosted by the Societies and Cultures Institute, will be on 2 May at 4pm in the Digital Humanities Seminar Room on Streatham Campus (register here).