A new framework for evaluating genetically modified mosquitoes

TDR news item
26 June 2014

The Guidance Framework for testing genetically modified mosquitoes is now available for countries considering this new technology. Genetically modified mosquitoes (GMM) engineered to be incapable of transmitting certain pathogens or able to reduce populations of similar native mosquito vectors have emerged as a promising new tool to combat vector-borne diseases like malaria and dengue in the more than 100 countries where they’re endemic.

Commissioned by TDR and the Foundation for the National Institutes of Health (FNIH), the framework was drafted by four different working groups (efficacy; safety; ethical, legal and social; and regulation), each of which received comments about their draft from experts in the field and the public. This final version assembles the known standards and guidance based on current research evidence.

“The Guidance Framework has been extremely helpful to us. It’s exactly what we have been lacking.”

Dr Nguyen Van Trang, Viet Nam Ministry of Health

According to Dr Yeya Touré, TDR unit leader for research on vectors, environment and society, the Guidance Framework can help researchers and decision-makers as they confront the many questions raised by the introduction of a modified vector. For example, says Touré, “Would the genetic construct be strong enough to withstand different environmental conditions? Will modified mosquitoes transmit pathogens that they were not able to transmit before?”

As research advances, scientists, policy-makers and the public have expressed concerns about how this unprecedented intervention should be tested and implemented.

Currently, a number of countries are evaluating experimental releases of modified insects, and at least two, Viet Nam and Panama, have used earlier drafts of the framework to address testing requests from scientific institutions. “The Guidance Framework has been extremely helpful to us,” says Dr Nguyen Van Trang of the Viet Nam Ministry of Health, which is currently collaborating with Monash University in Australia on an effort to use Wolbachia-infected mosquitoes for dengue control. “It’s exactly what we have been lacking.”

By proposing standards of efficacy and safety testing comparable to those used for trials of other new public health tools, the guidance framework aims to foster quality and consistency among processes for testing and regulating new genetic technologies.

Touré cautions that because of the breadth of different genetic approaches under consideration and the variety of conditions under which they might be implemented, the document may not be suitable for evaluating other genetic technologies, including the kind of biological modification that is underway in Viet Nam. It’s also important to note, he adds, that the framework does not represent the views of the World Health Organization (WHO) or FNIH. “It’s a document that brings together what is known about how best to evaluate genetically modified mosquitoes, but it is not a set of recommendations for what to do.”

In January, Brazil became the latest country to authorize the use of genetically modified mosquitoes in vector control programmes after field trials revealed significant reductions in the wild adult population of Aedes aegypti mosquitoes. “This shows that countries are definitively responsible for making the decision of using or not using a given tool,” says Touré. “WHO’s role is to guide them with the best information possible, and that’s what this framework is designed to do.”

For more information, contact:

Jamie Guth
TDR Communications Manager
Telephone: +41 79 441 2289
E-mail: guthj@who.int