HAVANA TIMES, Sep 17 (IPS) — Genetically modified ‘terminator’ mosquitoes are the latest weapons that the Malaysian government wants to use against the deadly dengue fever, but activists and environmentalists say the public health risks of introducing a new ‘artificial’ strain of mosquito are far too high.
The government has discussed plans to release in December male ‘terminator’ mosquitoes with ‘killer’ genes that would lead to a reduction in the population of the Aedes mosquito, which carries and transmits the dengue virus to humans.
Under what would be a pilot project devised by British and Malaysian scientists, the genetically engineered male Aedes mosquitoes would pass on – when they mate with the wild female of the species – lethal genes that would kill the larvae of the female.
This is supposed to lead to an eventual fall in the number of dengue-carrying mosquitoes, especially the females that are the ones that transmit the dengue virus.
“There are more safe and benign ways to fight dengue” than introducing an altered species whose impact on the environment is unknown, argues Mohamed Idris, president of the Consumers Association of Penang, which campaigns to protect the environment and public health.
“There are alternatives like biological controls to check mosquito population to curb the spread of dengue infections,” Idris said in an interview. For instance, plant extracts, oils and biological larvicides to control mosquito population are cheaper, safer and as effective, he said.
“Releasing genetically modified (GM) mosquitoes from the laboratories into the wild has potential for grave consequences,” Idris added, echoing public concern over the joint undertaking of Malaysia’s Institute of Medical Research and British biotechnology company Oxitec Ltd.
Gurmit Singh, chairman of the non-government Centre for Environment, Technology and Development, warned: “Once you release these GM mosquitoes into the environment, you have no control and it can create more problems than solving them.”
Strong sentiments against the field release of GM mosquitoes abound as well in online chat rooms and other social media, where discussions have been uninhibited compared to the government-controlled mainstream media in the country.
“It (the experiment) could unleash a Pandora’s box. It can go out of control. Laboratory conditions cannot be supplanted in the wild,” said a popular commentator known in the online community as ‘Flyer168’. “Can the government guarantee the safety of its citizens?”
Health Minister Liow Tiong Lai announced earlier in September that the experiment with GM mosquitoes at the “clinical level” was “very successful.” But he said the government was awaiting independent reports from the Genetic Modification Advisory Committee and the National Biosafety Board before deciding on the field release of the ‘terminator’ mosquitoes.
“If both the committee and the board approve the project, the final decision would be made by the Cabinet,” Liow told ‘The Star’ newspaper on Sep. 10. The ministry, which is overseeing the project, has “very stringent” measures to ensure public safety, he assured.
If the feedback from the two agencies is favorable, the GM mosquitoes could be released in a remote area of central Pahang state, health ministry sources said.
Dengue fever is commonly found in the tropics and can cause deaths after people are bitten by female Aedes mosquitoes, usually during the daytime. Dengue cases are often mistaken for the usual fever, and failure to diagnose and treat on time can lead to dengue shock syndrome, which causes death.
Public campaigns in many Asian countries call on residents to avoid letting stagnant water accumulate and to identify early symptoms of dengue fever.
The World Health Organization (WHO), which has identified dengue as a major international public health concern, estimates that there are 50 million dengue infection cases annually, resulting in about 22,000 deaths, mostly children.
In March, U.S. National Academy of Sciences (NAS) published a study that suggested GM mosquitoes could help fight dengue fever. Although the Malaysian health ministry has vouched for the benefits of the GM mosquito project and cited international studies like those of the NAS, doubts have persisted among locals in past attempts to introduce the mosquitoes.
For instance, an initial plan in December 2009 to release the GM mosquitoes in Pulau Ketam island off the port city of Port Klang, 30 kilometers south of the capital, was aborted because of strong opposition from the 30,000 islanders, mostly fishers.
Together with local politicians and activists, they organized protests and wrote to the health ministry, asking it to avoid using the island as a laboratory to test the effectiveness of the GM mosquitoes.
“We strongly oppose this experiment,” said villager Liew Kam in a letter to the Health Ministry in October 2009. “This experiment could expose us and our children to bigger risks.” Liew complained that the islanders were not informed of field trials beforehand, much less consulted about their participation in them.
Pulau Ketam councilor Tee Boon Hock said field trials were called off soon after the islanders began their protests and threatened to vote for the opposition if the administration persisted with the experiment.