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Sunday, April 14, 2024

Nigerian journalists receive training on controversies surrounding “gene drives” from group

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A group- Renevlyn Development Initiative (RDI) on Friday held a training for Nigerian journalists on the controversies surrounding the ‘gene drives’ research organisations that allegedly target Africans as “guinea pigs.”

The training, the organisers said, was aimed at equipping journalists to understand the issues and be able to report the controversies robustly.

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The Executive Director of RDI, Philip Jakpor, in his opening remarks, said in conceiving the training, the organisation realised that the media is key not only in keeping the public informed but also in “exposing and interrogating initiatives and innovations that are extraneous to Africans and African culture as part of its watchdog role”.

Gene drive

Gene drive is a technology that allows a chosen set of genes to alter an animal’s biology in certain ways, such as making them produce sterile offspring. The inability to reproduce then sweeps through a population, upending the “laws of inheritance.”

Specifically, the genes copy themselves exponentially from generation to generation, rapidly coming to dominate the whole population. Potentially, scientists argue that their careful use might save millions of lives by making, for instance, mosquitoes unable to transmit malaria or by eliminating the insects entirely. The possibility of a definitive solution to major infectious diseases makes a compelling case for such a technology.

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Austin Burt of Imperial College London introduced gene drives in 2003.

The U.S. National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine, in response to the controversies surrounding the ecological trend, set up a committee to study the technology in full, with the support of the main agency funding gene drive research- the Defence Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA).

This agency, part of the Department of Defence, is considering the technology as a potential security threat. After a review of both the possible advantages and the immense uncertainties as to what might happen were a gene drive to spread globally, the conclusion of the committee’s 2016 report was: “There is insufficient evidence available at this time to support the release of gene-drive modified organisms into the environment.”

Meanwhile, gene drive opponents are concerned about the potential ecological damage and are suspicious of DARPA and other funders. They have called for a moratorium on research.

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Training

At the training of the reporters, Mr Jakpor noted that RDI is not averse to technology or innovation “as long as they are rooted in facts,” noting that the promotion of African culture is indigenous and should protect the people from manipulation in all forms.

He said gene drives are already being experimented in Uganda, Ghana, and Burkina Faso where in 2019 sterilised mosquitoes were released.

Nigeria, with its huge population of more than 200 million people is a potential testing ground for gene drives.

Presentations

The journalists, who cut across major news outlets, were taken through a session on “Communicating the Jargon of Science” by the Managing Director of EnviroNews, Michael Simire.

Mr Simire explained that science journalism covers subjects such as biotechnology, climatology, meteorology, global warming and the environment.

“It also extends to health, drugs, chemicals, agriculture, space exploration, as well as oil and gas exploration and oceans, rivers and marine ecosystems among others.”

Mr Simire explained that in the identified areas there are jargons such as DNA, acronym for DeoxyriboNucleic Acid or PCR which is Polymerase Chain Reaction and Streptococcus, which is essentially a bacteria and Apoptosis- jargon for cell death, among others.

“To write good science news, journalists must use simple language and avoid the jargon and technical terms to a large extent so as not to put the readers off,” he said.

In his presentation on “Gene Drives: What is it all about?” Diego Menendez, an ecological farmer and former molecular scientist, introduced the participants to the concept of CRISPR, a family of DNA sequences found in the genomes that are used to detect and destroy DNA from similar bacteriophages during subsequent infections.

Mr Menendez explained that “DNA is a set of instructions for all living organisms that are not linearly arranged but packed into chromosomes”.

He said there are 23 in humans and six in mosquitoes.

He revealed, however, that the process of gene drives may lead to unintended consequences and that “this possibility has continued to dog experiments on sterilising mosquitoes or inserting genes that can make them susceptible to insecticide which are being carried out in Africa.”

In another session tagged: “Behind the scenes of gene drives”, Barbara Pilz, a campaigner with Save Our Seeds, the political issues around gene drives were discussed.

She said such discussions were ongoing mainly at the UN Convention on Biodiversity (CBD) and the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) and by some national governments.

“Signatories to the UN CBD meet every two years at the Conference of Parties (COPs) to discuss the latest developments,” she said. “In between the COPs there are intersessional meetings to discuss specific topics and work on text. In some cases an Ad Hoc Technical Expert Group might be put in place to support the process in certain subjects.”

Barbara Ntambirweki of the AfriTAP/ETC Group in her presentation on “Africa’s Concerns about Gene Drives,” argued that “although regulations are yet to be put in place globally, the most advanced projects are aimed at malaria interventions in some African countries such as Ghana, Burkina Faso, Tanzania and Uganda.”

Ms Ntambirweki, also Civil Society Digital Practitioner at Stanford University, said Uganda has one of the highest global burden of malaria cases, with over 90 per cent of the population at risk. “In that country, malaria remains the leading cause of death, especially in children,” she said.

“Target Malaria Research consortium intends to undertake open releases of gene drive mosquitoes that will apparently reduce the population of the female anopheles mosquito and the mosquito population and reduce malaria transmission and disease,” she said.

She, however, argued that there is lack of transparency about ongoing trials taking place.

She said there are unethical experiments going on where communities are paid to expose their legs to biting mosquitoes that could be captured.

According to her, “Nigeria which has the highest malaria rate globally may be a potential target for the experiments on the continent, hence the media has to spotlight the ethical questions that the research organisations will prefer to hide.”

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