2021: Progress during challenging times

Posted 18th January 2021 by Professor Austin Burt

2020 was a strange and difficult year for all. The COVID-19 pandemic brought a new set of challenges to the project, forcing the team to be creative and find new ways to progress on our goal of developing a new vector control tool for malaria. Our plans changed on nearly every front.  

In the wider malaria community it was a relief to see that the progress of the last 20 years in reducing malaria incidence was not undone. Even under the worst of circumstances during the pandemic, 90% of planned malaria programmes went ahead with 200 million mosquito repellent nets distributed and 20 million children protected with anti-malarial drugs – saving hundreds of thousands of lives as a result. 

Closer to home, with thanks to our teams’ commitment to a world free of malaria, we also have a number of positive developments to report from the project across Africa, Europe and North America.  

An important milestone for the project was the renewal of the grant by our main funder the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. We are very excited to continue with our plans for the next five years and are grateful to our funders for the continued support.  

Every team had to adapt their routines, schedules, and safety measures multiple times throughout the year to keep research and other activities going while respecting new sanitary measures in all of our countries of operation. We relied on our teams’ flexibility, resilience and creativity to keep work progressing. One great example is the science-saving plan that was implemented with precision by the Crisanti Lab at Imperial College London. If you have not seen it, I recommend reading the blog about how they managed to keep up with work and have fun at the same time (why not?). 

We were also pleased to see the World Health Organisation (WHO) position statement officially supporting the research on genetically modified mosquitoes to combat persisting vector-borne diseases, such as malaria. The statement echoes earlier publications by the organization raising the importance of science and innovation to address vector-borne diseases and other global health challenges.  

On the science end of the project, Imperial College successfully created a male-biased population of gene drive mosquitoes. This was a major milestone for the project in 2020, demonstrating a complementary, additional approach to our doublesex strain, published in 2018, which can also lead to population collapse and no emergence of resistance in caged populations. In addition, in collaboration with the University of Oxford, the project published a new paper based on simulation modelling that indicates considerable suppression of vector populations achieved within a few years of using a female sterility gene drive. The model was used to investigate factors affecting the spread of this type of gene drive over a one million-square kilometer area of West Africa containing substantial environmental and social heterogeneity. The research team at Polo d’Innovazione di Genomica, Genetica e Biologia (PoloGGB) in Italy, together with the University of Oxford and Imperial College London, also published an analysis of our non-driving, self-limiting, autosomal male bias strain, concluding that modified mosquitoes with this transgene are unlikely to persist in target populations for longer than a few years. Though non-driving, this strain represents an important “way station” in our incremental, step-by-step development of mosquito strains for effective and sustainable malaria control. 

Marked mosquitos released at dusk in Bana Village, Bobo Dioulasso – Burkina Faso

In Burkina Faso, the team completed its monitoring following the release of the genetically modified sterile male mosquitoes (non gene drive) in July 2019. After seven months of monitoring, the team submitted their report of the release to the National Biotechnology Agency.  

In Cape Verde, the project was launched welcoming a new team based at the National Institute of Public Health. The team will start contributing to our entomological research, identifying sampling tools and regimes for baseline studies, and working to establish a colony of An. arabiensis mosquitoes.   

In Ghana, the project made progress on its ecology and rearing studies but had to pause its two studies because of COVID restrictions. You can still read about the barcoding project.  

In Mali, the team successfully concluded its contained laboratory work on the genetically modified sterile male mosquitoes that were imported in 2019. Feedback to local communities and other stakeholders are underway. The team also had the opportunity to participate in a number of activities relating to World Malaria Day, International Youth Day and World Mosquito Day.  

Insectary staff C. Batume and P. Mawejje performing a mock (screening for colour variant larvae and sexing of pupae) in preparationfor upcoming colour variant studies in Uganda

In Uganda, the project started to work with a naturally occurring non-GM mosquito within its containment laboratory – it displays a unique phenotype, a “colour variant”, which will help the team to prepare for future work with genetically modified mosquitoes. This was the first time one of our in-country project teams have raised a colour-variant mosquito colony locally for studies in the insectary.  

At Target Malaria, we have a commitment to conduct research according to the best standards and practices. Without the consent of the communities where we work, there will be no research, nor fieldwork. In recognition of the importance of acceptance, in 2020, Target Malaria held a series of workshops with experts on acceptance and consent. The initiative, organised in partnership with the Kenya Medical Research Institute and the Pan African Mosquito Control Association, aimed to provide direction and recommendations to the project’s stakeholder engagement activities. 

Stakeholder engagement is a vital component of our work. We have dedicated teams at local and global levels to ensure that stakeholders in participating communities can join our activities, provide feedback, raise questions, and support our research based on a sound understanding of our work. To see how this works in practice, I invite you to read this blog from Dr Nourou Barry from Target Malaria Burkina Faso. His PhD thesis focuses on the contribution of community engagement activities up until the release of genetically sterile male modified mosquitoes in the country.  

All of our progress and achievements have only been possible because of the commitment and dedication of our teams. I wish to thank them all for holding it together despite the challenges, and I look forward to updating you again in the future as this team continues to keep working towards our ultimate goal – a world free of malaria. 

I wish everyone a happy and healthy 2021!