10 things you should know about GM mosquitoes

mosquitoesThe National Biosafety Board (NBB) has recently approved an application from the Institute for Medical Research (IMR) to release genetically modified (GM) male Aedes aegypti mosquitoes. IMR wants to conduct field experiments in Bentong and Alor Gajah to see how far the males fly and how long they live for.

The aim of this GM technology is for the GM male mosquitoes to mate with wild female mosquitoes. They are genetically modified so that most of their offspring die before becoming adults. The hope is that this will reduce the population of Aedes aegypti mosquitoes, which carry the dengue virus, and hence reduce incidences of dengue fever.

1. Genetic engineering/modification can often give rise to unintended and unpredictable effects. These risks should not be underestimated. There are still many unanswered questions regarding the safety of the GM mosquitoes.

2. There is very little knowledge and experience with these GM mosquitoes and some scientists are worried about their impacts on health and the environment. A few of these scientists made submissions raising concerns, to the NBB and the Ministry of Natural Resources and Environment. The lack of agreement, even among scientists, as to the safety of this technology means that we should be more cautious about the releases.

3. The proposed field experiments are very likely to be repeated a number of times, so large numbers of the GM mosquitoes will be released in total. The release at both uninhabited and inhabited sites would involve either approximately 2,000-3,000 GM mosquitoes a day for two consecutive days, or a single release of approximately 4,000-6,000 GM mosquitoes. Assuming that these numbers apply to the two sites and two phases at each site (inhabited and uninhabited), this means that a total of 16,000-24,000 GM mosquitoes could be released into the environment of Malaysia. This figure would be much higher if the experiments are repeated.

4. There is no absolute guarantee that only male GM mosquitoes will be released. IMR will have to mechanically and manually sort out the male pupae from the female pupae before release. At the large numbers needed for the experiment(s), there could be mechanical or human error. Since it is the female mosquitoes that bite humans and may transmit disease, this is a concern.

5. Some of the GM larvae that are ‘programmed to die’, will survive. The offspring produced when the GM male mosquitoes mate with wild females are supposed to die. However, a small percentage of the larvae will survive (3-4 percent survived in the lab). Some of the survivors would be females. Survival of the GM larvae also means that the introduced foreign genes may not be completely removed from the environment, with unknown consequences.

6. If the GM mosquitoes become part of Malaysia’s dengue control strategy, millions of GM mosquitoes would have to be released on a continuous basis. As mosquitoes reproduce continually, releases will have to be made frequently, probably on a weekly basis, to suppress the mosquito population. It has been suggested that 100 million to a billion GM mosquitoes should be stockpiled for a given project.

7. The GM technology used in the mosquitoes is owned by a foreign company, UK-based Oxitec Limited. Oxitec holds global patents on this technology. It stands to gain from the continued release of the GM mosquitoes. It has recently been facing financial losses, and hence may be under pressure to get its products approved.

8. If the GM Aedes aegypti mosquitoes are reduced in number in the long-term, there may be an increase in another mosquito species, Aedes albopictus, which also transmits dengue as well as chikungunya in Malaysia. This is the way nature works – when one species is reduced, another will take its place.

9. This will be the second release of these GM mosquitoes in the world – why should Malaysia’s people and environment be guinea pigs? There have been field trials carried out in the Cayman Islands in 2009 and 2010 of this same GM mosquito. However, the environment (both ecological and human) there is completely different from Malaysia’s. We cannot extrapolate from those releases to the Malaysian situation. There has yet to be a full, publicly-available evaluation of the risk assessment and monitoring reports from the Cayman Islands’ experiments.

10. The inhabitants of the release sites have a right to say ‘No’ to these experiments. One of the terms and conditions of the approval is that it is mandatory that IMR obtains the prior consensus and approval from the inhabitants in the release site through a public forum.

Read about CAP’s demands for Prior Informed Consent from inhabitants in GM mosquito release sites and download your own letter of concern to the authorities at our Open Letter to the Government from Malaysian NGOs on genetically engineered Aedes aegypti mosquitoes.