Just spotted this Wired news report on an experiment with genetically modified mosquitoes – and the company “envisions releasing the insects in Malaysia on a large scale in three years”. Gulp!
Engineered Mosquitoes Could Wipe Out Dengue Fever
Scientists at a British biotech company said they have evidence that their genetically modified mosquitoes, which are programmed for sudden, early death, can control the spread of dengue fever.
Dengue is carried by mosquitoes and is the scourge of urban areas in the developing world, much as malaria is in rural regions. The company, Oxitec, said it can decimate mosquito populations by breeding genetically modified male mosquitoes, then releasing them to mate with wild females. Their offspring contain lethal genes that kill them young, before they can reproduce. Company officials told Wired News that their latest test results show that the genetically modified bugs can breed just as well as wild ones.
“We will be able to control dengue through controlling the mosquitoes that transmit it, especially in large urban areas,” said the company’s chief scientist Luke Alphey. “Thereby protecting many, many millions of people from this disease.”
Mosquitoes pass dengue fever to up to 100 million people each year, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Up to 5 million die. If the scientists can replicate their results in real field conditions, their technology could kill half of the next generation of dengue mosquitoes, which scientists say would significantly reduce the spread of the disease. If all goes well the company envisions releasing the insects in Malaysia on a large scale in three years.
Oxitec’s latest research, which company scientists will present in February at the IX International Symposium on Vectors and Vector-borne Diseases in Puri, India, included an independent evaluation by Malaysia’s Institute for Medical Research, part of the country’s Ministry of Health, said S.S. Vasan, Oxitec’s head of public health, in an e-mail. The results showed that up to 50 percent of wild female mosquitoes mated with Oxitec’s genetically modified male mosquitoes.
And this is some reaction of concern in the same report:
But as with genetically modified crop companies like Monsanto, Oxitec could face a backlash from a wary public. Greenpeace, among others, oppose genetic engineering of organisms that could be released into the wild.
“Releasing millions of genetically modified terminator mosquitoes into wild ecosystems amounts to a reckless and uncontrolled experiment with a risky technology,” said Jim Thomas, of the ETC Group, a technology watchdog. “Oxitec’s (project) abandons all pretense of containment or possible recall. I wonder what sort of liability they are willing to assume if something goes wrong?”
Thomas also questioned Oxitec’s core technology — a regulatory switch that uses tetracycline.
“The assumption is that the insects will not encounter tetracycline in the wild and yet tetracycline, naturally derived from a soil bacteria, is widely used in agriculture,” Thomas said.
“Genetically engineered insects for pest control are a literal disaster waiting to happen,” said Ronnie Cummins, director of the Organic Consumers Association, in an e-mail.
I just want to add, if the Malaysian authorities are really serious about controlling dengue fever, what about more traditional – and cost effective – measures of wiping out dengue fever such as removing their possible breeding grounds? Are we saying that the usual preventive methods of ensuring there is no stagnant water lying around and fogging affected areas are not effective? Why don’t we first do something about all those clogged drains full of stagnant water – so common in Malaysia – which are the perfect breeding grounds for mosquitoes? (I had a bad dream the other night of someone pulling out discarded furniture – I think it was an old chair! – that was clogging up a drain.)
And why has this project not been brought to the attention of the Malaysian public if it’s true, as the report says, that the Malaysian Institute for Medical Research is involved?
Here is a report from the Oxitec website showing that such a proposal is indeed being considered:
2 October, 2007 Oxitec and IMR conduct an Intensive Workshop on Aedes MosquitoesOxitec and the WHO Collaborating Centre for Vectors based at the Institute for Medical Research (IMR) have successfully concluded an “Intensive Workshop on Wild Type and Genetically Modified Aedes Mosquitoes”. This 7-day intensive workshop was conducted from 26th September to 2nd October 2007 in IMR’s campus in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia. IMR is the research arm of the Ministry of the Health Malaysia.
Should we allow a company to use Malaysia as a laboratory for such experiments? Who knows what unseen impact this will have on our ecological balance. I would be extremely cautious – and worried – about this initiative.