Malaria remains the leading cause of death in sub-Saharan Africa, Uganda inclusive. In 2019, malaria caused an estimated 229 million clinical episodes, and 409,000 deaths. An estimated 94% of deaths in 2019 were in the WHO African Region. In a bid to strengthen malaria control measures that include indoor residual spraying, drug treatments and the provision of free insecticide-treated bed nets, the African Union’s High-Level Panel on Emerging Technologies in 2020 identified gene drive mosquitoes as a priority technology for malaria elimination.
In collaboration with colleagues in Mali and Burkina Faso, Ugandan scientists are participating in preparatory activities for the possible field trial of gene drive mosquitoes. Since 2019, Makerere University has partnered with the University of Exeter in the UK in a collaborative Social Science Research on gene drive mosquitoes. With funding from the British Academy, the first study of the collaboration was conducted in 2019 under the theme, “Co-Developing Risk Assessments Across Disciplines and Borders Focused on Gene Drive in Uganda.” The other study conducted in 2020 under the theme “Talking about Gene Drive: An Exploration of Language to Enable Understanding and Deliberation in Uganda” was supported by Wellcome Trust. Phase three of the collaborative study led by Dr Stella Neema from the Department of Sociology and Anthropology at Makerere University and Prof. Sarah Hartley from the University of Exeter in the UK, and supported by the Global Challenges Research Fund (GCRF), is focused on “Strengthening gene drive governance for malaria control in Africa”.
According to Dr Chris Opesen, one of the lead investigators on the projects, gene drive governance for malaria control in Uganda will require the involvement of Ugandan social scientists, anthropologists and scholars across other disciplines.
It is on this basis that the Department of Sociology and Anthropology at Makerere University in collaboration with the University of Exeter in the UK, and the University of Edinburgh in Scotland organized a one-day workshop under the theme “A Social Science Agenda for Gene Drive Research” to deliberate on the state of gene drive research in Uganda and the possible contribution of social science studies towards strengthening gene drive research. The blended (physical and virtual) workshop held at Kolping Hotel in Kampala on 19th May 2021 was attended by academics from Makerere University, Exeter University in the UK and the University of Edinburgh in Scotland, as well as representatives from Target Malaria Uganda, a not for profit research consortium that is seeking to develop and share new, cost-effective and sustainable novel technology for malaria control in sub-Saharan Africa. Other participants included representatives from the Uganda National Council of Science and Technology, the National Bio-safety Committee, ACODE, Gulu University and district local governments.
Delivering a keynote address on “Gene Drive Regulation and the Challenges to be addressed with Social Research”, Dr Charles Mugoya, Chairman of Uganda's National Biotechnology Council, emphasized the importance of social science studies in strengthening gene drive research. “There is need for social science studies to clarify a number of issues including, the different philosophies about risks of technologies and benefits of gene drive provisions in the CBD and WHO and its committees, the indigenous knowledge available in gene drive, benefits for individuals and communities in which the research takes place, appropriate societal mechanisms for whistle blowing and raising concerns on gene drive research, and the infrastructure necessary for a coordinated gene drive governance across national boundaries,” he explained.
According to Dr Mugoya, Social Scientists are better placed to deal with issues relating to humanity hence the need to engage them at the conceptualization stage of gene drive research to help identify appropriate models for consent and community engagement before field studies are conducted.
Presenting the national and international legal frameworks, Dr Mugoya said concerns about gene drive technologies can be resolved through appropriate regulation and oversight of by empowered, critical and knowledgeable national stakeholders including ethics committees, GMO regulators, as well as a rigorous stakeholder engagement. He called for an early engagement at regional level on issues of transboundary release of genetically modified mosquitoes.
The workshop also featured presentations on the “Current State of Gene Drive Science” by Target Malaria, “A previous social science study on co-developing risk assessments in gene drive conducted” by Prof. Charles Rwabukwali et al, “Public and stakeholder engagement in risk assessment for gene drive technology as a form of malaria control in Uganda” by Dr Chris Opesen, and a panel discussion on “The value of social sciences and humanities in gene drive research and studies on other infectious diseases”.
In his presentation, Prof. Rwabukwali noted that there was need for an inclusive approach in identifying risks and benefits of gene drive. “To social scientists, this expert-led approach is narrow, linear, ignores the complexities of gene drive. We contest it. It is essential to have interdisciplinary teams that bridge natural and social sciences. In order to ensure success of the gene drive technology, there is need to open up the risk assessment process to a broader range of voices and consideration,” he explained.
A study titled “Public and stakeholder engagement in risk assessment for gene drive technology as a form of malaria control in Uganda”, presented by Dr Chris Opesen at the workshop, emphasized the need for diverse representation in gene drive research and risk assessment. “Gene drive research and risk assessment should be inclusive. While past attempts at risk assessment of Gene Modification in Uganda have tended to be narrowly focused and science-based, we argue for the need to go beyond the traditional dichotomy of expert-non-expert discourse and recognize the utility of diverse knowledge in the Uganda context,” the researchers advised.
During the panel discussion on the value of social sciences and humanities in gene drive research, Dr Jonathan Kayondo from Target Uganda explained that social scientists had more expertise in developing stakeholder engagement and communication strategies and navigating through the legal framework, factors that would foster uptake of the technology. Dr Stella Neema from the Department of Sociology and Anthropology at Makerere University noted that social scientists were best placed to study human behaviour and consequently foster acceptability of the technology. “Social scientists do a lot of conceptualisation using different theories that provide insights into human behaviour. It is therefore important to use the social sciences lense to understand human behaviour and cause change,” she noted. The discussants noted that strengthening gene drive research will greatly require the contribution of social scientists.
Participants cautioned institutions involved in the development and advancement of gene drive technology against ignoring the existing regulatory frameworks.
The discussions were moderated by Dr Okiror George from the Department of Political Science and Public Administration, Makerere University and Dr Eria Olowo Onyango from the Department of Sociology and Anthropology at Makerere University.
The event was coordinated by Dr Chris Opesen, Lecturer in the Department of Sociology and Anthropology at Makerere University. It was graced by the Principal of the College of Humanities and Social Sciences at Makerere University, Dr Josephine Ahikire.
Presentations attached below.