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To fight malaria, WHO rejigs research guide on genetically modified mosquitoes

New guidance from the World Health Organisation (WHO) has set essential standards to inform future research and development on genetically modified mosquitoes, particularly in addressing issues relating to ethics, safety, affordability and effectiveness.

Malaria and other vector-borne diseases, including dengue and Zika, affect millions globally. More than 400 000 people a year die from malaria alone.

If proven safe, effective and affordable, genetically modified vector mosquitoes could be a valuable new tool to fight these diseases and eliminate their enormous health, social and economic burden.

The guidance framework for testing genetically modified mosquitoes, developed in partnership with TDR, the Special Programme for Research and Training in Tropical Diseases, and the GeneConvene Global Collaborative, an initiative of the Foundation for the National Institutes of Health, describes best practices to ensure that the study and evaluation of genetically modified mosquitoes as public health tools is safe, ethical and rigorous.

Current strategies for limiting transmission of mosquito-borne diseases are only partially effective.

New, complementary approaches are needed to close the gaps in current vector control interventions, such as effective control of outdoor biting, and to provide alternatives to manage the increasing threat of insecticide resistance. Research suggests genetically modified mosquitoes could be a powerful and cost-effective tool to supplement existing interventions.

“We urgently need innovative approaches to help control mosquito-borne diseases, which have a devastating impact around the world,” said Dr John Reeder, TDR director. “Genetically modified mosquitoes is one such approach, but we want to be sure it’s fully and responsibly evaluated, as outlined in a recent WHO position statement.”

The new guidance addresses specific questions and challenges associated with research and development on genetically modified mosquitoes, including standards for decision-making about how and when testing should proceed.

By establishing a common set of expectations that is specific to genetically modified mosquitoes, the new resource will enable more informed and rigorous evaluation by researchers, developers, those responsible for regulatory and policy decisions and the people to whom these stakeholders are accountable.

“Like any new public health intervention, genetically modified mosquitoes raise new questions for researchers, affected communities and other stakeholders,” said Michael Santos, director of the GeneConvene Global Collaborative. “The updated guidance framework aims to answer these questions and help ensure that testing of genetically modified mosquitoes is as rigorous as it is for other public health products – and that it generates quality results to guide decisions about if and how these technologies are used.”

“Over the last 2 decades, we have achieved remarkable results with existing malaria control tools, averting more than 7 million deaths and 1.5 billion cases of the disease,” said Pedro Alonso, director of the WHO Global Malaria Programme. “However, progress towards key targets of our global malaria strategy remains off course. Genetically modified mosquitoes are one of a number of promising new tools that could help speed the pace of progress against malaria and other vector-borne diseases.”

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