The Uganda Virus Research Institute (UVRI) has disclosed plans to introduce genetically modified mosquitoes into the environment, with a target timeframe of around a decade. The aim is to reduce malaria transmission by breeding mosquitoes that primarily produce non-fertile male offspring or those that are entirely sterile.
The genetic modification of mosquitoes, including the use of gene-drive technology, is part of the Africa Target Malaria project initiated in 2016. This project seeks to minimize malaria-related fatalities in Uganda. Dr. Jonathan Kayondo, a researcher involved in the project, revealed this information during a training event for journalists in Kalangala District.
Dr. Kayondo emphasized that the timeline for the introduction of gene-drive mosquitoes will be contingent on the successful development and positive response of non-gene-drive (sterilized) mosquitoes in various stages of research. The purpose of this training event was to bridge information gaps related to the project.
The research team is also waiting to receive Ugandan mosquito species whose genes have been genetically engineered in a laboratory in the United States for trial purposes. The immediate goal is to create sterile male mosquitoes incapable of fertilizing female anopheles mosquitoes, which are responsible for malaria transmission.
The researchers aim to reduce the number of female anopheles mosquitoes in the population by limiting the number of female mosquito eggs they produce. Currently, the team is studying the behavior of mosquito species from across Uganda, which are housed in the insectarium at UVRI headquarters in Entebbe, Wakiso District. This research involves observing their biting patterns and mating behaviors.
The Ugandan research team collaborates with scientists from Burkina Faso, Mali, and Ghana on this project. Mr. Kayondo Mutebi, the vector control personnel and focal person for the Africa Target Malaria Project in Kalangala, emphasized that genetically modified mosquitoes would not replace existing anti-malarial methods, such as sleeping under treated mosquito nets. These methods will continue to be used alongside the modified mosquitoes.
Dr. Tom Lutalo, the assistant director of UVRI, emphasized that the government and its institutions closely monitor the research to ensure adherence to Uganda’s technological laws and procedures. The scientists are considering the possibility of releasing a substantial number of genetically modified mosquitoes into the wild to influence future generations and reduce malaria transmission.
According to the World Health Organization, approximately 200 million people worldwide succumb to malaria annually, with 90 percent of these cases occurring in Africa. In Uganda, records from the Ministry of Health indicate that 40 out of 100 people visiting health facilities nationwide are diagnosed with malaria, and 20 of them die from the disease. Although Kalangala District is expected to have a higher prevalence of malaria, it is often underreported due to limited healthcare-seeking behavior.