The Mosquito Coast

What if we found a way to eliminate malaria?

Photo: James Gathany. Source: Center for Disease Control

I hate mosquitoes. When I was growing up in Minnesota, we joked that it was the “Minnesota State Bird.” Mosquitoes suck your blood and make you itch. And they carry a lot of diseases, including Malaria.

Malaria kills half a million people every year, mostly children in tropical Africa. References to the disease have been found throughout history and around the world, from ancient China, to Greece and Rome, to 19th century Europe and America. It has been controlled by a combination of medicine and public health measures. It’s still a major problem in Africa.

Malaria Life Cycle. Source: NIH

But a new technology is being developed that has the potential to almost totally eradicate the disease. Using a form of genetic engineering, it sterilizes the mosquitoes that transmit the parasite to people. And it could help with other problems—saving Hawaii’s disappearing native birds, or stopping the spread of dengue fever and the Zika virus.

But it raises lots of issues: would removing some species of mosquito upset ecosystems? Is it ethical to eliminate an entire species? Could we risk a genetic epidemic if the altered DNA jumps to another insect? And could the technology be used by terrorists to create a designer plague? Some think the research ought to be classified, although it’s probably too late for that.

This is reminiscent of the questions that arose in the ‘70s when recombinant DNA first started to be used. At that time, scientists declared a voluntary moratorium on new research projects while professional and ethical guidelines were worked out. Since then, hundreds of different uses for the lab technique have been found—from synthetic human insulin to rennet-free cheese.

Our understanding is always advancing, and species continually adapt and compete with one another. Chances are, if we eradicate malaria-carrying mosquitoes, other mosquitoes will spread and take their place in the ecosystem. But eliminating malaria carries huge potential—on an economic as well as humanitarian basis.

Technology is what has made large populations possible. And large populations are what makes technology possible.

Douglas R. Tengdin, CFA

Chief Investment Officer

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