Time to Ring Warning Bells on High Risk Technologies of Genetic and Other Modification of Insects

Genetically Modified Mosquitoes

Various technologies of manipulation and modification of insects, including genetic modification, have been attracting a lot of debate in recent years, particularly in the context of mosquitoes. This debate heats up further if we include the hidden possibilities of the use of some of these technologies for biological or entomological warfare, even though at the more apparent level this research is taking place for admirable civilian objectives like protection from disease and development of agriculture.

Here it should be pointed out that the Biological Weapons Convention has banned the research and development relating to biological weapons and therefore anyone taking up research on bio-weapons is constrained to either hide this entirely in top-secret facilities, or else has to take up this in the garb of civilian and development research. When extensive testing in field conditions is needed, then the second option is the only option.

To give an example of such debates, we may take up the example of the ‘Insect Allies Program’ implemented by Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) of the USA. Although at the more obvious level this is projected as a work of agricultural development, the fact that a leading defense agency is implementing it raises some suspicions, which have been confirmed by senior scientists and legal experts.

Here we quote from a document titled ‘A Step towards Biological Warfare with Insects?’ (October 4, 2018) of the Max Planck Institute of Germany. This document says—“A project funded by a research agency of the US Department of Defense is now giving rise to concerns about possibly being misused for the purpose of biological warfare. The program called ‘Insect Allies’ intends for insects to be used for dispersing genetically modified viruses to agricultural plants in fields. These viruses would be engineered so they can alter the chromosomes of plants through ‘genome editing’. This would allow for genetic modification to be implemented quickly and at a large scale on crops that are already growing in fields, such as corn. In the journal ‘Science’ scientists from the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Biology in Plon and the Institut des Sciences de I’Evolution de Montpellier along with legal scholars from the University of Freiburg point out that this type of system could be more easily developed for use as a biological weapon than for the proposed agricultural purpose.”

Further this review of year 2018 informs us that at the end of 2016 DARPA put out a call for tenders for a 4 year research work plan. This program has distributed a total of 27 million US dollars, aiming to develop genetically modified viruses that can genetically edit crops in fields, the review says. Maize and tomato plants are reportedly being used while dispersal insects include leafhoppers, whiteflies and aphids.

This review says that the DARPA program risks being perceived as a biological warfare research program that is justified on the basis of stated peaceful purposes.

The review warns that this can start a trend of similar research with biological warfare implications by other countries as well.  “This kind of technology can easily be used for biological warfare”, says Silja Voneky, law professor from Freiburg University involved with this review. “It is very much easier to kill or sterilize a plant using gene editing than it is to make it herbicide or insect resistant,” says R.G. Reeves, scientist involved with this review, supporting this view.

There have been several other reports on biological warfare implications or linkages of some research on insects being pursued for stated development purposes. In India the Genetic Control of Mosquitoes Unit (GCMU) project was heavily indicted by the Public Accounts Committee of the Parliament due to such suspected linkages, and the issue was much debated during the 1970s and early 1980s. In this debate scholars were quoted as saying that if someone was thinking of spreading yellow fever as a biological warfare tactic, then the data gathered in this project could be very useful in this. This along with other reports of bio-warfare research relating to spread of yellow fever actually taking place at the Fort Detrick facility in the USA, caused concern (there were subsequent reports of this research being discontinued).

However even without the sinister linkages to bio-warfare, on just environmental grounds and distortion of development priorities, there have been several critical voices against insect modification and genetic modification. In addition there have been objections relating to lack of proper consent from affected people and providing them complete information as well as lack of proper regulation.

A publication of the British Parliament (Houses of Parliament, Parliamentary Office of Science and Technology, Report No. 360) on Genetic Engineering relating to insects tried to summarize the objections being voiced by several British environmental NGOs—

  • New insects or diseases may fill the ecological niche left by the insects suppressed or replaced, possibly resulting in new public health and agricultural problems.
  • The new genes enforced into the insects may ‘jump’ into other species, a process called horizontal transfer, causing unintended consequences in the ecosystem.
  • Releases would be impossible to monitor and irreversible as would be damage to the environment.

Writing in The Scientific American a scientist Helen Wallace, (then) Director of Gene Watch, UK, commented on the release of modified mosquitoes in several places, “Decisions appear to have been taken by a small circle of powerful investors who have decided they must rush to commercialize a particular technology, rather than in consultation with the people who will be affected. Who is liable if anything goes wrong? And will any problems be reversible as releases happen on an ever larger scale?”

In another essay written for Conversation (October 2019) Natalie Kefler, Francoise Baylis, Graham Dellaire and Landon J. Getz have combined concerns relating to science, ethics and governance (essay titled ‘Genetically modifying mosquitoes to control the spread of diseases carries unknown risks’). The authors tell us that with approval of Brazilian authorities Oxitec (the leading company in GM Mosquito technology) released nearly half a million GM Mosquitos every week into shared environments in Jacobina over a 2 year period from 2013 to 2015. This was done without the benefit of adequate risk assessment and without proper consultation. Plans have been made to extend field trials to other areas including the Florida Keys in the USA.

The authors further say—like GM soyabean or corn there is legitimate concern about the propagation of new genetic material in wild populations with as yet unknown consequences.

These authors ask—Shouldn’t Oxitec have made plans to assess the risk of gene transfer to wild populations during their initial trials? Shouldn’t the Brazilian government have required such an assessment as part of the regulatory approval process given their awareness of the risk?

In another review the Max Planck Institute has raised the issue –‘Genetically modified insects could disrupt international food trade’. This review tells us that environment releases of genetically modified insects have been approved by US regulators in 2014 very near farming areas. The question is whether fruits and vegetables, exported by USA, can be sold under the organic label if genetically modified insects have developed on these.

These are only some of the concerns that have been voiced. However a bigger controversy relates to whether disease may even be aggravated due to the various problems related to the technology of modified mosquitoes, even though these mosquitoes are released with the stated objective of reducing disease. This is much discussed in the context of Brazil where there was so much of release of various kinds of modified mosquitoes, including genetically modified mosquitoes, in the name of reducing dengue disease but in 2024 dengue cases suddenly increased to alarmingly high levels instead of decreasing. Instead of this tragic situation resulting in reconsideration of the technology of modified mosquitoes, plans are being made to scale it up!

Let us see what various commentators are saying about this strange situation. The website KleanIndustries says (27 February 2024)—“Dengue fever surges by 400% in Brazil after Bill Gates-backed GMO mosquitos released. Dengue fever has spiked four fold in Brazil in 2024 following the release of millions of gene-edited mosquitoes.  In the first five weeks of 2024, over 364,000 cases of dengue infection were reported, according to the country’s health ministry, which is 4x greater than previous cases in the same period in 2023. The dramatic spike has prompted Brazil to purchase millions of doses of the dengue vaccine.”

Further this review notes that after the release of modified mosquitos cases of dengue have increased sharply this year instead of falling. The review states that both the WMP (World Mosquito Program) release of modified mosquitos and the recent desperate mass purchase of dengue vaccines from a Japanese firm was facilitated by Gates funding which is “involved in all sides of the situation”!

The Guardian reported a little earlier that emergency conditions existed in three states of Brazil due to sudden dengue upsurge and Brasila will start vaccination of children in the 10-14 age-group.

Checkup, MIT Technology Review weekly biotechnology newsletter, reported in March 2024 that dengue has sickened more than a million Brazilians, overwhelming hospitals. Cassandra Willyard reported earlier visiting WMP’s insectary in Medellin, Colombia buzzing with mosquitos in netted enclosures. The report said that WMP is about to start construction on a mass rearing facility, the biggest in the world, in Curitiba and most of urban Brazil will be covered by the modified mosquito program in 10 years.

An earlier report in MIT Technology Review by Devienne Ferreira titled ‘Inside the Mosquito Factory that could stop Dengue and Zika’ reported an amazing, but also deeply worrying situation of a van moving around Piracicaba city in Sao Paulo, its rider casually releasing genetically modified mosquitoes from containers every two minutes or so and by the time the daily route is completed 250,000 of these mosquitoes would be released! These have been ‘produced’ at a facility near the city of Campinas. This is likely to cost the city $2.7 million a year, according to a rough estimate in this report. This report also tells us that in 2015 Oxitec was acquired for $ 160 million by the US conglomerate Intrexon, which owns a portfolio of transgenic organisms including salmon and apple trees.

A report in Nature by Mariana Lenharo ( 14 April 2023) tells us about plans for a ‘massive mosquito factory in Brazil’ which will produce up to five billion bacteria infected mosquitos per year to fight dengue.

According to a 2022 review by the Centers of Disease Control and Prevention, USA, since 2019 over a billion modified mosquitos have been released at world level, in several countries.

A report in The Guardian by Gabrielle Canon ( 26 March 2022) tells us that US is poised to release 2.4 billion genetically modified male mosquitoes to battle deadly diseases and the EPA has cleared the UK based biotech company Oxitec to release a maximum of roughly 2.4 billion of its mosquitos till 2024.        

Clearly all the voices of caution and all the adverse evidence have not prevented the technologies based on modified insects, including genetically modified insects, from being scaled up to new heights, increasing their high risks. It is time to ring the warning bells rather loudly to prevent the various dangers and risks, mostly irreversible risks, from spiraling out of control.

Bharat Dogra is Honorary Convener, Campaign to Save Earth Now. His recent books include Protecting Earth for Children, Planet in Peril, A Day in 2071 and India’s Quest for Sustainable Farming and Healthy Food.

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