Will the GM mosquito be the feared dragon?

SOMETIME early last year, the Institute for Medical Research (IMR) caused ripples of consternation when it announced that some 6,000 mosquitoes which had been genetically modified in a laboratory had been secretly released during a field trial in December 2010.

While some quarters lamented that the announcement came more than a month after the release, a group of 21 NGOs wrote to the government demanding full details of the trial and its results. In particular, there were obvious worries about the impact the mosquitoes would have on a natural environment that they were somewhat alien to.

The Health Ministry insisted that the trials – conducted in unpopulated areas of Bentong, Pahang and Alor Gajah, Malacca – were necessary to see how genetically modified mosquitoes (GMMs) could help to strike out the ordinary aedes mosquito and combat dengue. (The National Biosafety Board had in October 2010 approved the IMR’s application to conduct field tests in the areas.)

On Jan 27 last year, in describing this tiny new mosquito when highlighting this controversial episode in this column, I incidentally alluded to the mythical dragon, feared by some ancient societies for bringing ills and dangers to people. Now exactly a year later, as we usher in the Chinese lunar year of the dragon, the alarm has turned into shock.

Health Minister Datuk Seri Liow Tiong Lai last week announced that the release of GMMs in unpopulated areas had proven successful in reducing the number of Aedes aegypti mosquitoes. And so, the government may go ahead and release GMMs in populated areas, he said.

Among the features touted is that this new mosquito has a fluorescent trait and a shorter life span than the normal aedes in the absence of the antibiotic tetracycline. But there are genuine fears that the move may have not only unknown ecological implications but also health implications.

For instance, the Consumers Association of Penang (CAP), which has been critical of the programme from the start, has questioned how the mosquitoes’ release in unpopulated areas had been successful when that trial did not look into whether there was any population suppression of the Aedes aegypti.

Furthermore, GMMs are known to survive in a laboratory at rates of around 3%, CAP president S.M. Mohamed Idris said. “In the field, this would translate into large numbers of survivors, given that continual releases of millions of GM mosquitoes would be needed to sustain the goals of population suppression (of the aedes),” he stressed.

There are also questions on whether neighbouring countries have been informed of the release of GMMs.

The mosquito, labelled OX513A (My1), was jointly developed by the IMR and UK-based biotech company Oxitec Ltd. Oxitec had previously courted controversy when it reportedly released three million GMMs in the Cayman Islands.

GeneWatch UK, a science-based not-for-profit organisation, has pointed out that no public consultation was undertaken on potential risks and informed consent to such a drastic move was not sought from the local population.

GeneWatch director Dr Helen Wallace said: “The British scientific establishment is acting like the last bastion of colonialism, using an Overseas Territory as a private lab. There is no excuse for funding trials without public consultation or ethical oversight to help out a spin-out company that is heavily in debt.”

Today, the announcement that the Malaysian government is keen to release GMMs in areas occupied by humans has raised more questions and concerns than the earlier trial release in uninhabited areas. It has been pointed out that while dengue is a serious problem, there are other effective, safer and less costly alternatives exist to reduce the number of dengue hotspots like the ministry’s Communication for Behavioural Impact programme.

What would likely escalate this whole affair into a crisis would be a move to now release GMMs into the open without consulting local residents and keeping in the dark the very people who would be exposed to the creatures. We may then just see how this little new mosquito shows itself as the dreaded dragon we have long feared.

Himanshu is theSun’s Penang bureau chief. Comments: letters@thesundaily.com