GM mosquitoes: Procedure strictly complied with

WE REFER to “Will the GM mosquito be the feared dragon?” (Letters, Jan 26). Exhaustive studies lasting four years confirmed that the biology, behaviour, mating competitiveness and vectorial capacity of the genetically-modified Aedes aegypti are not altered. Except for the introduced lethal trait, nothing changes. These findings were published or are being published in reputable peer-reviewed scientific journals which freely available.

Based on these findings and many other careful considerations, the Genetic Modification Advisory Committee (GMAC) and the National Biosafety Board (NBB) approved the first open release of the GM Ae aegypti in an uninhabited forested area to study its flight range and longevity.

Subsequently, two public consultation announcements were published in two national newspapers at a two-week interval, soliciting public opinion. In addition, the NBB invited nine NGOs and the media to a roundtable media discussion, for which only one NGO turned up, despite reminders.

Later, two public briefings, one each in Bahasa Malaysia and Mandarin were conducted in Bentong. The presentation was in a visual and non-technical manner, to provide all concerned with an understanding of the entire process.

Large and prominent posters announcing the trial were also set up at strategic locations at the trial site, and flyers were sent out to nearby residents. Prior to the trial, two NGOs applied to the GMAC to examine the project dossiers as provided for in the Biosafety Act 2007. Only one NGO turned up and went through the dossiers. The Institute for Medical Research (IMR) abided by all stringent requirements stipulated in the terms and conditions of the NBB. All trial results were presented many times in scientific seminars and talks.

In fact, the prestigious journal Nature on Feb 10 last year commented: “... Transparency is essential. The Malaysian authorities went to some lengths to inform people that the trials were going ahead, holding open forums and briefing the media, which gave the experiments wide-coverage”.

Regarding survivorship of the GM mosquito in the laboratory, information has been available since 2007 and the findings were taken into account by the regulatory committees (GMAC, NBB and the Cabinet) at the various approval stages. The 3% survivorship finding was observed under optimal laboratory conditions where these mosquitoes have a longer lifespan (i.e. in the absence of predators, favourable temperature and humidity, as well as easy access to food and mating).

Even under such conditions, the rare survivors are weak with short lives, i.e. the construct is self-limiting. Survivorship in the wild is likely to be significantly lower. In the very unlikely event of GM larvae surviving and becoming sterile adults, such adults when mated with their wild counterparts will similarly produce larvae that will die in the absence of tetracycline.

Dr Lee Han Lim
Head, Medical Entomology Unit
& WHO Collaborating Centre for Vectors
IMR