GMO mosquitoes January 28, 2011Posted by Cameron Shelley in : STV202, STV203 , trackback
The Malaysian Institute of Medical Research has concluded an experiment in which 6000 genetically modified mosquitoes were released into the wild. The male mosquitoes were engineered to be able to mate with wild females but to be unable to produce offspring. They take mating opportunities away from fertile males, thus producing a drop in the local mosquito population. With fewer mosquitoes around, it is hoped that the incidence of dengue fever, which can result from mosquito bites, would be significantly reduced. Results of the experiment await analysis.
(Image courtesy of USDA via Wikimedia Commons.)
The scheme is somewhat controversial because it was carried out without much in the way of prior consultation with the local population:
“I am surprised that they did this without prior announcement given the high level of concerns raised not just from the NGOs but also scientists and the local residents,” said Third World Network researcher, Lim Li Ching. “We don’t agree with this trial that has been conducted in such an untransparent way. There are many questions and not enough research has been done on the full consequences of this experiment.”
A very similar incident came to light recently in the Grand Cayman Island. British biotech firm Oxitec released GM mosquitoes on the Island in 2010 with essentially the same plan as the Malaysian researchers. The experiment generated controversy for the same reason, that is, the local population was not much consulted:
But that lack of a public debate doesn’t sit well with the collaborators in a big international project, in which Oxitec is a key member, to develop and test GM mosquitoes. The program, funded by a $19.7 million grant from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and led by Anthony James of the University of California, Irvine, has spent years preparing a study site in the Mexican state of Chiapas for cage studies and a possible future release of another strain of Oxitec mosquitoes. The work includes extensive dialogues with citizen groups, regulators, academics and farmers. The project, one of Gates’s Grand Challenges in Global Health, would “never” release GM mosquitoes the way Oxitec has now done in Grand Cayman, says James.
Do the local residents have a right to greater participation in the introduction of GM animals?
The situation is reminiscent of the introduction of GM crops and foods. In North America, it was done with a minimum of public debate or notification. In Europe, debate was much more extensive. The result is that North Americans (perhaps unknowingly) grow and consume a great deal of GM food, whereas Europeans have proven quite reluctant to do the same.
Besides people’s right to know, the issue of GM mosquitoes might seem like a kind of illicit medical experiment. The Tuskegee syphilis experiment involved doctors observing poor, black residents of the town as they endured the illness, in spite of the fact that effective treatments were readily available and the nature of syphilis was already well enough understood. Only last year, it was revealed that a number of soldiers, prisoners, and mental patients in Guatemala were also involved in this study, also without their informed consent or offers of treatment. The GM mosquito experiments are not of the same variety and are intended to help reduce disease. Still, the conduct of experiments of a medical nature without consent of the people who might be affected is troublesome.