Africa kicks against proposed gene drive moratorium at UN Biodiversity Conference

By Joseph Opoku Gakpo

November 20, 2018

Africa has kicked against a proposed moratorium on the environmental release of organisms containing gene drives now under debate at the United Nation’s biodiversity conference in Egypt.

Work is currently ongoing in Burkina Faso that could possibly lead to the deployment of the gene drive technology in the fight against malaria. That prospect mobilized some convention delegates to call for a moratorium on releasing organisms into the environment, even in limited field trials.

Parties to the Convention on Biodiversity are being asked to decide between two texts that would define the technology: “Apply the precautionary principle (with regards) to gene drives,” or “apply the precautionary principle (and refrain from) releasing gene drive organisms.” Adopting the latter will effectively mean a ban on the release of gene drive organisms into the environment in the more than 190 countries that are signatory to the convention.

During a working group meeting at the conference on Sunday, South Africa led the African group rejecting the text seeking a refrain. “On behalf of the African group, we are requesting the deletion of the bracketed text (and refrain from), in favor of (with regard to),” the leader of the South Africa delegation told the meeting.

That stance reflects the views of more than 100 scientists who signed an open letter opposing the proposed moratorium. “Closing the door on research by creating arbitrary barriers, high uncertainty, and open-ended delays will significantly limit our ability to provide answers to the questions policy-makers, regulators and the public are asking,” the letter stated. “The moratorium suggested … on field releases would prevent the full evaluation of the potential uses of gene drive. Instead, the feasibility and modalities of any field evaluation should be assessed on a case-by-case basis.”

Dr. Umar Traore, who heads the laboratory at Burkina Faso’s Biosafety Agency, agreed. “We cannot stop the work,” he told the Alliance for Science in an interview. “If you refrain, in 10 years’ time, you will still be at the same position. Malaria is a burden for us. It’s a disease we cannot manage. So we are welcoming any possibility to combat the disease. We cannot afford to be keeping mosquitoes that transmit diseases with us. So we need to go for gene drive.”

The African Union consists of 55 countries and more than 50 of them support the position of the African group at the conference. Representatives of Ghana, Nigeria, Kenya and dozens of other African countries rose to back the position of South Africa. “Madam Chair, we support the position of South Africa that the text (and refrain from) should be removed…” the leader of the Nigeria delegation told the meeting.

As Eric Okoree, a member of the Ghana delegation and chief executive officer of that nation’s Biosafety Authority, noted: “Ghana doesn’t believe in a ban. Ghana believes in the AU position that science and technology should be used to promote socio-economic development. These technologies are emerging. We need to see how best we can use it. That is why we have come together as Africa.”

At the working group meeting, New Zealand, Malaysia, India, Indonesia, Argentina, Peru, Switzerland and other countries backed the Africa group position that there was no need for a moratorium on gene drive technology deployment. Thailand, Bolivia, Egypt and El Salvador, however, supported the position pushing for a moratorium on gene drives.

The European Union offered a compromise text, calling on governments “to refrain from such releases unless risk assessment has been performed and relevant measures are in place.” The issue has been referred to a smaller meeting to debate and reach consensus for adoption by the plenary, possibly before the conference ends Nov. 29.

More than 190 nations that are parties to the convention are debating proposals from an ad hoc technical expert group, online forums and the Subsidiary Body on Technical and Technological Advice. The proposals primarily discuss synthetic biology but can have consequences for research into gene drives.

Thousands of individuals from these countries are gathered for the bi-annual conference. Each country has a delegation that actually negotiates approval or otherwise debates proposals from the Convention on Biodiversity Secretariat. They discuss various topics in working groups. Contentious issues are referred to smaller contact groups, which then decide on issues and report back to the larger gathering for approval.

Representatives of civil society groups, non-governmental organizations, academia and others with an interest in biodiversity are accredited to participate in the conference and contribute to deliberations, but their suggestions are taken into account only if a party backs them.

Some of these groups contributed to discussions on the gene drive technology during the working group meeting, with some pushing for a ban and others opposing it. Prof. Austin Burt of Target Malaria, whose organization is working on the Burkina Faso gene drive project, told the meeting there is the need for the technology to be allowed to flourish.

“We urge parties to avoid taking decisions that will stifle research by creating scientifically unjustifiable barriers, high uncertainty and open-ended delays. We encourage parties to draw on prior experience, existing knowledge and ongoing knowledge by national authorities and expert authorities to guide experts working on gene drives,” Burt said.

Royden Saah of the nonprofit organization Islands Conservation, which works to prevent extinctions by removing invasive species from islands, told the meeting: “The proposals calling for a ban on field evaluation will effectively stop research on gene drives, undermine the principle of case-by-case assessments and foreclose communities the opportunity to consider these tools in the future.”

But their position was sharply rejected by other groups. Rebecca Hamilton of the organic business W.S. Badger Co. told the meeting: “We hope you will consider a moratorium on environmental release of gene drives until further research is completed. Gene drives cannot be contained because they are designed to spread and that is what will contaminate organic agriculture and affect the livelihood of organic farmers.”

A representative of the Global Youth Biodiversity Network told the meeting that gene drive technology has the capability to wipe out entire populations of particular species and that will be bad for the environment. “The risks associated with gene drives are great,” she said. “It’s unprecedented. And it is designed to exterminate entire species. Once they are released and they leave the artificially maintained, optimal environment of big laboratories, they will be faced with complex, random, unpredictable, uncontrolled and unknown realities of our ecosystems, aggravated by the equally complex, social, political and cultural dynamics of our societies. So we strongly ask parties not to allow for any release of gene drives into the environment.”

But representatives of the African governments disagreed with suggestions that the technology could endanger the environment, noting it is already available in other parts of the world without consequence. “Gene drive is already having successes in the Central Americas. And Ghana being a typical African country with problems with malaria should consider using the technology to deal with malaria,” Okoree told the Alliance for Science. “If there should be a ban, it will be catastrophic and unfortunate. Because sometime later, somebody will call for it [the technology]. And that will be too late and others would have gone far ahead.”

The scientists, in their open letter, also addressed safety concerns: “Scientists, alongside regulatory experts, funders and sponsors of the research, are working together to ensure research is carried out safely and responsibly, by building on previous experiences, using published policy and information, and putting in place monitoring and containment systems to prevent accidental releases. Ongoing discussions are also taking place to determine suitable conditions for field evaluations.”