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Community Engagement and Field Trials of Genetically Modified Insects and Animals

New techniques for the genetic modification of organisms are creating new strategies for addressing persistent public health challenges. For example, the company Oxitec has conducted field trials internationally—and has attempted to conduct field trials in the United States—of a genetically modified mosquito that can be used to control dengue, Zika, and some other mosquito-borne diseases. In 2016, a report commissioned by the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine discussed the potential benefits and risks of another strategy, using gene drives. Driving a desired genotype through a population of wild animals or insects could lead to irreversible genetic modification of an entire species. The NASEM report recommends community, stakeholder, and public engagement about potential uses of the technology, and it argues that the engagement should occur as research advances, well before gene drives are deployed. Yet what “engagement” means in practice is unclear. This article seeks clarity on this problem by offering a justification for community engagement and drawing out implications of this argument for the implementation and desired outcomes of community engagement.

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