How Brussels can help or hinder the fight against malaria

DISCLAIMER: All opinions in this column reflect the views of the author(s), not of EURACTIV Media network.

The EU's Biodiversity Strategy is a defining moment not only for conservation but for setting out the parameters within which people and planet can be protected, writes Fredros Okumu,

The EU’s Biodiversity Strategy is a defining moment not only for conservation but for setting out the parameters within which people and planet can be protected, writes Fredros Okumu.

Fredros Okumu is the director of science at the Ifakara Health Institute, Tanzania.

In the wake of the pandemic, the world has much for which to thank Europe. Not only did European science lead the field in developing the first approved vaccine against COVID-19, but the EU’s long history of rigorous regulatory approval has also allowed for public confidence in its safety and efficacy.

For years, the EU has provided the global gold standard for protecting human health and safety while fostering scientific innovation to improve lives and wellbeing.

Heading into a crucial decade for world preservation, the EU has another chance to unleash the power of science in the search for solutions to existential challenges both at home and in neighbouring regions.

The rest of the world will be watching as the European Parliament rubber-stamps its Biodiversity Strategy in the coming months, as a defining moment not only for conservation but for setting out the parameters within which people and planet can be protected.

An important component of this vote relates to ongoing research into the potential use of the gene drive technology, a naturally-occurring phenomenon of biasing the inheritance of a particular genetic trait throughout a species.

Such a tool could help control populations of invasive species that pose a threat to endangered animals, such as seabirds, and protect biodiversity.

Though still under laboratory testing, this technology is also already recognised by both the World Health Organisation (WHO) and the African Union as a promising development for stopping mosquitoes from spreading malaria, which infects 230 million and kills 410,000 people annually, most of them African children.

The final decision on whether or not to use such technology should and would be left to malaria-endemic countries. However, supportive policies in Europe that enable responsible research into gene drives would be a vote in favour of the kind of scientific endeavour that could accelerate malaria control in ways not currently possible with existing approaches.

It would also be a vote for the opportunity to carefully evaluate the technology through rigorous scientific processes and generate data for regulatory agencies and decision makers for consideration, not only in Europe but around the world.

So, as the EU assesses its options for meeting its ambitious biodiversity targets, MEPs should remember that they are also weighing the potential gains of gene drive for the 3.2 billion people still at risk of malaria against the possible and likely tractable risks, and contribute positively by allowing scientific progress in a safe and coordinated manner.

The global 2020 target for reducing malaria cases was expected to be missed by 37 per cent according to WHO, making more investment into research and development for complementary, low-cost and scalable technologies even more pressing.

Based on early laboratory-evidence, gene drive-based approaches may potentially offer such opportunities in future.

The urgency and scale of the challenge facing many countries worldwide is precisely why our European friends should proactively support partnerships between scientists, regulators and communities across continents to safely guide such technologies for disease control.

Europe’s world-class research laboratories, regulators and infrastructure can be the engine of change for a better world if they can unite around shared goals.

I would ask MEPs to choose the right side of history and to remember that they have a shared responsibility, not just to Europeans but to the rest of the world, to channel rather than contain the power of science.

Decisions made in Europe have ramifications for Africa and beyond, and by clearing the path for innovation, the European Parliament can set a precedent for supporting scientists. They can choose science over fear; and a shared responsibility over narrow ideology.

Evidence from the excellent work by European scientists on COVID-19, and in particular the applications of genetic technologies to create a highly effective vaccine in less than 10 months, is a testament to the power of partnerships and safe science.

Both the EU’s scientific and regulatory landscape provides inspiration and guidance, particularly for those countries without the same capacity and resources.

A vote against any kind of research is a shot in the foot for innovation. But investing in safe and cautious research can be a shot in the arm for both people and the planet.

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