Bite back: A girl puts her hand in a box with male genetically modified Aedes aegypti mosquitoes at an educational exhibition by British biotechnology company Oxitec in Piracicaba, Brazil. Picture: REUTERS
Bite back: A girl puts her hand in a box with male genetically modified Aedes aegypti mosquitoes at an educational exhibition by British biotechnology company Oxitec in Piracicaba, Brazil. Picture: REUTERS

The government of Burkina Faso has given scientists permission to release 10,000 genetically engineered mosquitoes into the wilds near a town called Bana.

It is one of three African countries working with Target Malaria and international teams of scientists to set the groundwork to eventually release "gene-drive" mosquitoes, which contain a mutation that should reduce the mosquito population. These biohacked mozzies are a bold step in the sub-Saharan battle against malaria.

Malaria is one of the biggest killers on the continent. The Institute of Health Metrics and Evaluation’s Global Burden of Disease study states that in sub-Saharan Africa malaria is responsible for 19% of child deaths. Children under five make up a staggering 72% of the 719,551 deaths attributed to the disease globally in 2016.

The World Health Organisation (WHO) estimates that 438,000 people died due to malaria in 2015; but the Institute of Health Metrics and Evaluation puts its estimate at 720,000.

It is numbers like these that led the WHO to devise its Technical Strategy for Malaria (2016-2030), which sets ambitious goals to reduce malaria case incidents and mortality rates by 90%. It hopes to eliminate malaria in 35 countries by 2030, 10 of them by 2020.

As things stand, malaria infection in Africa has halved and the incidence of clinical disease fell by 40% from 2000 to 2015. This is in part due to the distribution of insecticide- treated bed nets.

A study published in Nature, International Journal of Science by S Bhatt et al, found that the nets were the single most important contributor and were responsible for 68% of the 663-million averted cases. Other contributing factors were artemisinin-based combination therapy, which led to 19% of averted cases, and indoor residual spraying, which accounted for 13%.

"Increasing access to these interventions, and maintaining their effectiveness in the face of insecticide and drug resistance should form a cornerstone of post-2015 control strategies," the study says.

However, according to Jonathan Kayondo, principal investigator of Target Malaria Uganda, even with this level of decline we will not be on course to achieve WHO goals through these means alone.

Instead we are now set for the first genetically engineered animal to be released into the wild in Africa.

This allows the gene modification to have a greater than 50% chance of the modification taking place, overriding normal biological processes to continue having the gene passed on to all the offspring, generation after generation. It essentially hacks the laws of heredity.

More importantly, it is the first time a gene-drive animal will be introduced outside a laboratory. Up to now gene-drive mosquitoes have only found success in trials in the laboratories of Imperial College London, rendering almost all the female mosquitoes in their experiments infertile.

Genetically modified mosquitoes are nothing new. A company called Oxitec uses an alternative genetic modification in its trademarked "Friendly" mosquitoes; male Aedes aegypti mosquitoes that carry a "self-limiting" gene. The offspring of this friendly bunch will carry a gene that prevents them surviving to adulthood, in the hope of drastically reducing the disease-carrying wild female population.

Oxitec has so far released its buzzing wares in Brazil, Florida, Panama, the Cayman islands and India, with pilot projects showing an 80% drop in wild populations compared to untreated areas. "A level of control greater than that typically achieved with insecticides," the companies website says.

Initially the company focused on dengue, Zika and other diseases plaguing the Americas, but as of June it has been in partnership with the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation to "transfer the skills and know-how into an anopheles strain for use in vector control efforts to combat malaria".

But Oxitec’s work is mostly attributed to minor gene trickery and forced matchmaking rather than gene-drive editing. Gene-drive technologies alter DNA, making sure a specific gene is inherited.

Through the help of the groundbreaking enzyme clustered regularly interspaced palindromic repeats (Crispr-Cas9), the drive not only replaces the targeted gene but scans the DNA to find other versions, replacing them with the driven gene too.

This allows the gene modification to have a greater than 50% chance of the modification taking place, overriding normal biological processes to continue having the gene passed on to all the offspring, generation after generation. It essentially hacks the laws of heredity.

But mosquitoes aren’t the only ones with genes that can be hacked. Gene-drive tech has also raised fears that it could be used for nefarious purposes by terrorists or have unexpected environmental consequences. As a panel of the US National Science Advisory Board put it in 2015, "entomological warfare".

The UN bioweapon office has been briefed that with the use of this tech a terrorist would not need to create vast amounts of a lethal virus to unleash on the world. Instead, he could create a handful of entities with a gene for making a toxin, and power it with a gene drive, or infect the crops of a rival warring nation with a mutation that will cause them to die out over time.

The US Federal Bureau of Investigation and the Pentagon are seeking to regulate gene drives in the fear that they are able to alter evolution in ways scientists cannot imagine.

I’ve never heard of a terrorist that followed regulations and I normally side with Jurassic Park’s Dr Ian Malcolm’s belief in being wary of the unexpected ethical implications of playing god with manufactured evolution. But if we want to avoid having to deal with deadly — or even just itchy — mosquito bites, that’s a risk we may have to be willing to take.

• McKeown is a gadget and tech trend writer.