After sparking controversy in other countries including India, the technology of genetically engineered mosquitoes is now leading to widespread protests in Florida USA. Here the  biotechnology giant company Oxitec in collaboration with local officialdom is moving ahead with a pilot project to release millions of genetically engineered mosquitoes in Monroe County over a period of two years or so. The stated aim is to control the population of Aedes aegypti, a species that can carry both the dengue and the yellow fever virus. The idea is for genetically altered male, non-biting  mosquitoes to mate with local , biting females , producing offspring that die at larval stage.

Pointing out the inherent dangers of such technologies a spokesperson of Florida Key Environmental Coalition said that everyone should be writing to the White House to stop the release, at least until regulations to protect people are in place. Friends of the Earth has commented—scientists have raised concerns that genetically engineered mosquitoes could create hybrid wild mosquitoes  which could worsen the spread of mosquito borne diseases and could be more resistant to insecticides than the original wild mosquitoes.

This debate in Florida should not be seen in isolation but in combination with similar controversies that have been sparked in several other countries as well by this technology.  There were recent media reports that trials of   technology of Genetically Modified Mosquitoes took place in Maharashtra and attempts for bigger trials were being made. In fact many such trials have been organized even with secrecy in several parts of the world , even though serious hazards associated with such trials have been exposed time and again.

Dr. Helen Wallace , Director of GeneWatch UK  has written , “ The benefits of releasing billions of genetically engineered  mosquitoes into the environment have been exaggerated and the risks have been downgraded. One concern is that releasing genetically engineered mosquitoes could even make the dengue situation worse, perhaps by reducing immunity to the more serious form of the disease. Panamanin researchers have warned that a competitor species , the Asian tiger mosquito, which also transmits dengue and chikungunya, could move in and be harder to eradicate. Disease transmission by this might increase in future. The use of tetracycline to feed genetically engineered mosquitoes in Oxitec’s ( Oxitec is a British firm involved in spreading this technology) mosquito factory risks introducing  antibiotic resistance bacteria into the environment, posing a risk to human health.”

Earlier a press release by Friends of the Earth USA informed , “ A confidential internal document obtained by civil society groups shows genetically modified mosquitoes described by their manufacturer , UK company Oxitec, as sterile are in fact not sterile and their offspring have a 15 per cent survival rate in the presence of the common antibiotic tetracycline.”

Eric Hoffman of Friends of the Earth said while commenting on this that the credibility of the company involved has been undermined as it has been hiding data from the public. He said that trials of its mosquitoes should not move further in the absence of comprehensive and impartial review of environmental hazards and human health risks.

A Reuters report dated 30 January 2016 and titled ‘GMO Mosquitoes could be cause of Zika outbreak, critics say’ said, “ Oxitec critics also suggest that in the absence of studies into the potential knock-out effects of this in these mutated mosquitoes it is possible that they thrive in the wild with unknown mutations taking place in the genetically modified mosquitoes , which in turn could worsen the spread of Zika virus.”

This technology followed in the Genetic Control of Mosquitoes Unit project in India had been indicted for its biological warfare implications by the Public Accounts Committee of the Indian Parliament.

According  to  media reports, small-scale trials of  release of genetically modified mosquitoes were conducted in Maharashtra and it is likely that preparations may be made for bigger field trials.

Although it is pushed in the name of disease control by powerful interests it may actually lead to a worsening of diseases, as pointed out in recent years by several public interest campaigns in several countries.

In India these efforts were first seen in the form of the Genetic Control of Mosquitoes Unit Project during the 1970s and this project was strongly criticized in the media for its various hazards and even biological warfare implications. The Public Accounts Committee of the the Indian Parliament also suppoted this criticism in its 167th Report. The hazardous implications of the project were exposed by C. Raghavan in Mainstream ( May 17 1975) and by the brilliant PTI reporter Dr. K.S. Jayaraman. While a lot of damage was done by this project , the large-scale release of dangerous mosquitoes in the crowded city of Sonipat in Haryana, near Delhi,  could be stopped at the last minute.

Since then several aspects of genetically modified mosquitoes, including their release by a firm Oxitec, have been the subject of much controversy and criticism in various parts of world, one reason being that some of the releases have taken place in conditions of secrecy. A Reuters report dated   30 January 2016 titled ‘GMO mosquito could be cause of Zika outbreak, critics say’ attracted a lot of attention , as did papers by Dr. Helen Wallace regarding many potential hazards of this technology.

In a recent comprehensive review of this technology titled Mosquito in the Ointment ( see Frontline February 16 2018)a senior Indian scientist Dr. P.K.Rajagopalan , former director of the Vector Control Research Centre has exposed many-sided problems and hazards of this technology. He has concluded after examining a lot of evidence from various parts of world , including India, “It is obvious that the release of genetically manipulated vector mosquitoes not only is ineffective but also poses a great danger to society.”

Hence any further trial of this dangerous technology should be stopped immediately.

Bharat Dogra is a journalist and author. His recent books include Planet in Peril and Protecting Earth for Children.


GET COUNTERCURRENTS DAILY NEWSLETTER STRAIGHT TO YOUR INBOX


 

One Comment

  1. A Sad Little Man says:

    This is just more fearmongering. The biggest risk is these mosquitoes will not work. Put that against all the mosquito-borne diseases.