Genetically Modified Mosquitoes Release in the Millions with No Risk Assessment

Natural Society
by Mike Barrett

In case you didn’t know, genetically modified mosquitoes have been unleashed numerous times on planet Earth. Thus far, millions mosquitoes were released in various locations; Cayman Islands, Malaysia, and Brazil. Now, the GM mosquito creator Oxitec may release millions of genetically modified mosquitoes in the fields of crops, including olives, citrus fruits, cabbage, tomatoes, and cotton.

A UK-based company, Oxitec is the maker of all genetically modified insects. The company’s goal is to create a global market, where GM insects will be released around the world in order to take over natural insect populations. With the replacement of natural insects, the company hopes to wipe out disease carried by insects as well as those insects feeding on farmers’ crops. As scary as it might sound, thousands of insect species could be genetically altered in the near future.

Interestingly, Oxitec is supported by and very close with multinational pesticide and seed company, Syngenta. Syngenta, in addition to providing the world with destructive pesticides, has also been charged with covering up the deaths of many animals consuming the company’s GM corn. Being mainly interested in the market for GM agricultural pests, Syngenta as well as Oxitec are planning to commercialize GM insects around the world.

What’s especially scary about the release and future modification of thousands of species is that all of this will be done with little risk assessment. Not to mention not knowing of the vast number of negative outcomes that could occur from genetically modifying parts the biosphere.

Dr Helen Wallace, Director of GeneWatch UK said “The public will be shocked to learn that GM insects can be released into the environment without any proper oversight. Conflicts-of-interest should be removed from all decision-making processes to ensure the public have a proper say about these plans.”

To help release the GM insects, Oxitec is influencing regulation around the world. One example of influence revolves around the European Food Safety Authority, established to help the risk assessment of GM insects. As reported by FarmWars, there seems to be numerous instances of conflict of interested, which includes experts with links to Oxitec. The connection of those in EFSA and Oxitec is very similar to that of the Monsanto-FDA connection, where several government officials have hard-links to biotech giant Monsanto.

The draft Guidance on risk assessment of GM insects shows some significant deficiencies: for example it does not consider the impacts of GM insects on the food chain. Oxitec’s GM insects are genetically engineered to die mostly at the larval stage so dead GM larvae will enter the food chain inside food crops such as olives, cabbages and tomatoes. Living GM insects could also be transported on crops to other farms or different countries. EFSA has excluded any consideration of these important issues from its draft guidance. Many other issues are not properly addressed.

A briefing shows how Oxitec is trying to influence regulatory processes for GM insects. Oxitec:

Doesn’t want to be liable for any complications.

Tries to avoid any regulation of GM agricultural pests on crops appearing in the food chain.

Excludes important issues from risk assessments, such as the impact on human immunity and disease, and the possible outcomes arising from surviving GM mosquitoes.

Releases large amount of GM mosquitoes prior to regulations.

Attempts to define ‘biological containment’ of the insects (which are programmed to die at the larval stage) as contained use, by-passing requirements for risk assessments and consultation on decisions to release GM insects into the environment.

Undermining the requirement to obtain informed consent for experiments involving insect species which transmit disease.

Ignores any labeling using products produced from GM insects and how insects can be contained where released.

Related: Genetically-Modified Insects: Under Whose Control?

ANALYSIS: Are we being told the full truth about GM mosquitoes?

The Ecologist
by Helen Wallace

Promotion of GM mosquitoes as a way to tackle a tropical disease is simply part of a PR strategy intended to pave the way to a new global business selling GM agricultural pests, says Helen Wallace

In November 2010, Oxford University spin-out company Oxitec announced it had released 3 million genetically modified (GM) male mosquitoes in the Cayman Islands. Shock and surprise was muted by enthusiastic press coverage of its claims to have reduced the wild population of the Aedes aegypti species of mosquitoes by 80 per cent. This is one of two species of mosquito that can transmit the tropical disease dengue fever. In January 2011, the company submitted its results to the journal Science. This week – two years after completing the experiments – the findings have finally been published as Correspondence to the Editor of journal Nature Biotechnology.

Oxitec reports several different estimates of the temporary reduction in the wild population of mosquitoes, ranging from 60 per cent to 85 per cent. There is no baseline data on mosquito populations at the site. At different times, Oxitec moved mosquito traps from one location to another and changed the size of the release site. It is unstandable then that a succession of peer reviewers have rejected its results.

To achieve the claimed effect, Oxitec had to significantly increase the number of adult GM mosquitoes it released each week and focus on a 500m by 200m area where it added GM pupae at locations spaced 70 to 90m apart. The release ratio of 25 GM mosquitoes to one wild one means that adult GM males are very inefficient at finding and mating with wild females. Preliminary unpublished results from Brazil are even worse: a release ratio of 54 was needed. The well-established public health approach of removing the flower pots and water containers where mosquitoes breed is likely to be more effective and has the added benefit of reducing both mosquito species that spread dengue, not just one of them.

Ethical standards in the paper are as poor as scientific ones. Oxitec failed to send the required risk assessment which meets European standards to the EU and UK authorities before exporting GM mosquito eggs to the Cayman Islands. Informed consent is not possible without a published risk assessment, which did not exist. Scientists, as well as environmental groups, have criticised the company for conducting its first experiments in a British Overseas territory which has no biosafety law, and for not meeting these legal and ethical requirements.

Oxitec’s GM mosquitoes are not “sterile”: they mate with wild mosquitoes and produce offspring which survive to the late larval or pupal stage. Some 3-4 per cent of these survive to adulthood and this can rise to 15% in the presence of the common antibiotic tetracycline: information which Oxitec tried to conceal from public scrutiny. When Oxitec was forced to release a risk assessment, following the trials, scientists from the Max Planck Institute published a critique arguing that the risk of releasing GM biting females, and the survival of GM mosquito offspring, should have been properly considered.

It is hard to justify planned commercial releases based on these results. Poorly effective approaches to reducing mosquito populations can actually increase the risk of the more severe form of dengue in dengue-endemic countries (such as Brazil), due to the loss of cross-immunity to different dengue virus serotypes. Other risks include a possible increase in the numbers of the Asian Tiger mosquito, which also transmits dengue; and increases in the number of surviving GM mosquitoes over time.

Back in 2010, Oxitec’s exaggerated claims that it had a GM solution to the dengue virus were widely reported despite no published results. A Nature News blog even stated that the company had wiped-out the disease although dengue is not endemic in the Cayman Islands and no tests have ever been conducted of the impacts on the illness. The effect of suppressing mosquito populations on the incidence of dengue is poorly understood and may be very limited. Plans to scale-up releases of GM mosquitoes in Brazil to 2.5 million a week may still go ahead regardless, following a 2007 agreement between the Brazilian and UK governments. UK Trade and Investment is targeting developing countries as potential markets to help Oxitec commercialise its patents, and helping Brazil to secure venture capital investment. Experiments are also planned in Florida and Panama.

Oxitec’s funders include the multinational pesticide and GM seed company Syngenta. Most of its management team and consultants are ex-Syngenta staff. Promotion of GM mosquitoes as a way to tackle a tropical disease is part of a PR strategy intended to pave the way to a new global business selling GM agricultural pests. GM olive flies, tomato borers, diamond back moths (which eat cabbages and broccoli), fruit flies and pink bollworms (cotton pests) will be just the start. Other ideas for the future include GM pesticide-resistant bees.

Oxitec’s GM insects could soon end up in your food. The European Food Safety Authority (EFSA)’s new Guidance on risk assessments for GM animals could be adopted as early as December, opening the door for large-scale commercial releases of GM insects in the EU. Oxitec has indicated that it wishes dead and surviving GM larvae, pupae and adult insects on food crops to be treated as “technically unavoidable”: allowing them to enter the food chain without any labelling. If used commercially, many GM pests will die as larvae inside olives and tomatoes, as well as on the outside of some other crops. Ecosystem impacts are poorly understood and surviving GM pests could spread across national borders and into sensitive environments and organic crops.

Concerned individuals should – urgently – be thinking about contacting their MPs and MEPs and writing to supermarkets to ask them not to stock such products.