GM mosquito: Only when safe

PETALING JAYA (Jan 31, 2012): Genetically-modified (GM) mosquitoes will only be released in populated areas after the Health Ministry can satisfy all safety concerns.

Health Minister Datuk Seri Liow Tiong Lai (pix) said his ministry will ensure all safety measures and consultation are conducted before implementing the initiative.

"Although it has proven to be successful in field trials, we cannot proceed with this initiative without consulting the public and people on the ground," he told theSun in a telephone interview.

"We still need to consult several parties, most importantly the public. The people must be informed about this first," he said, adding that the proposal must also go through several committees and procedures.

As GM mosquitoes have proven to effectively counter the breeding of dengue agent Aedes aegypti mosquitoes in its field trial in an uninhabited area early last year, the ministry is now looking into releasing them in populated areas to prevent the spread of Aedes and dengue.

The ministry is taking every step cautiously and ensuring that public safety is prioritised, Liow said. It is also awaiting clearance from the Institutional Biosafety Committee under the Science, Technology and Innovation Ministry and approval from the cabinet.

"Only after all these are done, can we release the GM mosquitoes. We are also reviewing similar initiatives and the results in other countries," he said.

With dengue cases still on the rise, Liow said the ministry needs to act promptly to counter the issue.

In a first of its kind experiment in Asia early last year, some 6,000 GM mosquitoes were reportedly released in the forest in Bentong, Pahang, resulting in a public outcry.

The field test was to pave the way for the official use of genetically-engineered Aedes aegypti male mosquitoes to mate with females and produce offspring with shorter lives, and cut back the population.

Acknowledging the objections and concerns raised by various quarters, Liow said security measures will be strictly conducted for all field trials.

Several environmental groups had voiced concern that letting out GM mosquitoes, which are known to survive longer and breed differently than the Aedes mosquitoes, into places occupied by people raises even more questions and concerns than the controversial trial release of the GM mosquitoes in uninhabited areas last December.

The National Biosafety Board had in October 2010 approved the Institute for Medical Research's application to conduct the field tests in Bentong and in Alor Gajah, Malacca.

Consumers Association of Penang (CAP) president S. M. Mohd Idris stressed that the trials only measured how far the GM mosquitoes flew and how long they lived for, and not whether they caused Aedes suppression.

"We wonder how the release of GM mosquitoes in unpopulated areas have proven successful in reducing the number of Aedes aegypti mosquitoes when that trial did not study whether there was any population suppression," he said.

He said GM mosquitoes are known to survive in the laboratory at rates of around 3%.

"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 aedes)," he said.

Meanwhile, Children's Environment Heritage Foundation CEO Adly Mohamed urged the government to instead focus its efforts on eradicating mosquito breeding grounds, particularly in urban areas.

"The funds channelled towards research on GM mosquitoes can be better used to beef up enforcement efforts against occupants of buildings found to be Aedes breeding grounds," Adly told theSun.

He said there is also no evident track record of success in using GM mosquitoes to bring down the rate of dengue infection.
"The government is messing with Mother Nature and could be playing with fire," he cautioned.