As the EU’s Biodiversity Strategy reaches the European Parliament, it has reopened a worrying debate about research into gene drive technology, a tool which could pave the way for biasing the inheritance of desired genetic traits through targeted species.
Advances in this kind of genetic technology could allow scientists to create a blueprint for stopping diseases spread by mosquitoes and protecting endangered species, both significant reasons for supporting this emerging field.
Yet even if EU decision makers see no need for gene drive technology in Europe at present, there are compelling reasons for supporting ongoing research, and rejecting irresponsible and short-sighted calls for a moratorium.
Firstly, the threat of malaria and other mosquito-borne diseases may be minimal today but it existed on the continent within living memory, with Europe first becoming malaria-free in 1975, and then again only as recently as 2015.
However, with climate change bringing rising temperatures and favourable conditions for malaria-carrying species to Europe, these diseases could feasibly return to create a serious public health challenge.
Rather than wait for malaria to re-emerge and catch Europe on the back foot, the EU should learn from the Covid-19 pandemic and invest in research into new technologies that could help improve preparedness for the ecological changes that might contribute to disease outbreaks.
If scientists are prevented from researching and developing new tools until an imminent need is present, we face paying an unnecessary human cost while we make up ground.
Secondly, Europe is not an island, which means it must be prepared to deal with gene drive that might be released in other regions.
Only by fully understanding gene drive and its potential implications can European scientists carry out the appropriate environmental risk assessments and advise on any necessary measures to respond to its potential arrival on the continent.
We cannot mitigate or manage what we cannot measure, and we cannot measure what we are unable to research.
Finally, if the EU halts research into gene drive, this scientific field will continue to develop elsewhere around the world, leaving Europe falling behind. Gene drive research is already advancing in the US, across Africa and in India, and many countries will continue to build their expertise to Europe’s disadvantage if MEPs support a moratorium.
Europe is well-equipped to lead the world in developing new technologies safely but only if research can continue.
When the environmental and public health of the continent is at stake, it is tempting to adopt a binary perspective on new and emerging solutions like gene drive.
But the reality is much more complex and nuanced: gene drive may not be a silver bullet, but it is also not intrinsically damaging or threatening, and we will not understand the full potential of this technology – or how to manage it – without continuing research.