The United Kingdom’s Daily Telegraph recently ran a lengthy feature on Target Malaria, a new initiative to use “gene drive” technology, developed by scientists at London’s Imperial College, to combat malaria. The scientists hope that by releasing genetically modified mosquitoes into the wild, they can stop the insects from breeding and reduce their populations. Reduced populations lower the probability that they will spread deadly diseases.
This potential new tool is far from proven, but holds promise, even if its application is more limited than researchers believe. However, far from cheering on technologies that might save human lives, some environmentalists are standing in the way of progress, repeating tactics employed in the 1960s against the malaria control efforts of the day. The 1960s campaign proved to be deadly for millions around the world and these renewed anti-public health efforts could be similarly harmful in the future.
In 1955, the World Health Organization (WHO) launched its Global Malaria Eradication Program. It relied largely on spraying tiny amounts of the world’s first long-lasting man-made insecticide, DDT, on the inside walls of houses.
Once sprayed inside, this remarkable chemical acts primarily as a spatial repellent, keeping mosquitoes outside and unable to spread the malaria parasite to residents. DDT’s public health applications were discovered by the Allied forces during World War II, and the United States was the primary backer of efforts to rid the globe of an ancient disease.
DDT gave public health officers a highly effective new tool to stop mosquitoes from spreading the malaria parasite. Between 1955 and 1969, malaria control efforts around the globe freed almost one billion people from this deadly threat, saving countless millions of lives. Yet the program ground to a halt for several reasons, principally highly effective campaigns by environmentalists against the use of man-made chemicals.
Rachel Carson, whose book “Silent Spring” is credited with launching the modern environmentalist movement, took aim at DDT, although her concerns were mostly the widespread aerial spraying of insecticides in agriculture. Such spraying had the potential to affect beneficial insects, wildlife, and humans, and it was far from unreasonable to express such concerns, even if her claims of harm were wildly exaggerated and in some cases entirely false.
Far more sinister than Carson were those in the population control movement who campaigned against DDT precisely because it was so effective in saving lives. In 1970, Science, the prestigious journal of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, published a paper by self-described ecologist George Woodwell, who proposed the following solution to environmental problems: “fewer people, unpopular but increasing restrictions on technology (making it more and more expensive.)” Woodwell advocated denying the world’s poor public health advancements and new technologies so they would simply perish.
Perhaps more effective than Woodwell was Paul Ehrlich, author of best-selling book “The Population Bomb,” who argued that “every life saved this year in a poor country diminishes the quality of life for subsequent generations.” Ehrlich went on to argue against “exported death control,” by which he meant the U.S.-funded malaria control efforts that were reducing death and disease at remarkable rates.
It’s hard to imagine a more ghoulish worldview. Yet, far from being shunned, Ehrlich was widely feted. The New York Times published his op-eds and he appeared on the “Tonight Show with Johnnie Carson,” among other shows, to peddle his malevolence. In 1990 the MacArthur Foundation even included Ehrlich as part of its highly lucrative Fellowship Program.
Aside from advocating higher rates of death in poor countries, Ehrlich is famous for his many faulty predictions, such as that world would see widespread food shortages and starvation for hundreds of millions in the 1980s. As explained by science writer Ron Bailey in “The End of Doom” and on an almost daily basis on HumanProgress.org, Ehrlich and his fellow doomsayers were spectacularly wrong in their many predictions.
Despite their wrongheadedness and menacing messages, governments around the world complied with the environmentalist campaigns, banning DDT for agricultural use in the 1970s. While the insecticide could still legally be used for public health programs, few donor governments funded its use and WHO records document many malarial country delegations complaining about their inability to secure sufficient stocks of DDT to maintain their malaria control programs.
The predictable result of limiting access to public health insecticides and withdrawing funding from spraying programs was a rise in malaria cases and deaths. By the 1990s around a million people, mostly children in Africa, were dying every year from the disease.
Thanks in large part to greatly increased funding for malaria control from around 2005 onwards, again largely from the United States, and with new medicines, insecticide spraying, and the use of insecticide-treated bed nets, malaria cases and deaths have been declining. However, ridding the world of this disease will require new tools, such as a vaccine and perhaps genetically altered mosquitoes.
To be fair to those who oppose the genetic modification, there may be legitimate concerns, and it is right and proper to proceed with regulatory oversight. For instance, the technology would effectively make certain species of mosquitoes extinct, and who knows where that could end up. That said, there is little evidence that eliminating or dramatically reducing the populations of specific malarial mosquitoes would seriously affect other species that may rely on them as a food source.
Another concern is that the technology could be hijacked by nefarious actors and even used to spread disease. While this is possible of course, it seems far from reasonable to block new technologies on the off chance that a rogue actor might attempt to hijack them. Were this the standard, would we ever have developed chemotherapies or radiation therapy for cancer treatments?
Environmentalist opposition to Target Malaria, however, might have more credibility, were it not coming from groups that oppose all genetic modification. Commenting on the project, Miriam Mayet of the African Center for Biodiversity (ACB) said it “should prepare itself for robust interrogation and resistance.” Friends of the Earth opposes Target Malaria, but like ACB, it opposes all genetic modification (GM), including in agriculture even though GM foods have been demonstrated to be safe for humans and the environment and are essential if we are going to feed the world’s poor in the years to come.
The GM resisters may be able to think up endless scenarios in which Target Malaria results in harm, but seem incapable or unwilling to address the very real and deadly risks of not developing new and much needed public health technologies
We live in an age of astonishing new discoveries that are making our lives longer, healthier, and more prosperous. Optimists such as myself greet these new discoveries with a sense of wonder, but we should not let that bright optimism blind us to the significant threats that modern Luddites pose.
Those attempting to stop genetic research seem happy to impose an impossibly high price, perhaps the ultimate price, on the world’s poor so they can be comforted in the knowledge that genetic research has been halted. Their campaigns must be stopped.
This first appeared in The Federalist.
Richard Tren is a co-founder of Africa Fighting Malaria, a public health advocacy group.
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