Home TA Online 2011 TA Online GM mosquitoes: It just doesn’t add up!

GM mosquitoes: It just doesn’t add up!

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Dr Jeyakumar Devaraj wants to know whether the Health Ministry plans to buy GM mosquitoes directly from Oxitec or whether there is a crony company already sidling up to take over that ‘difficult’ job.

Several Malaysian institutions together with an Oxford University-linked company are on the verge of conducting field trials with a transgenic aedes mosquito that according to them might hold the key to controlling dengue in Malaysia. (Reports have now confirmed that 6,000 GM mosquitoes were secretly released at a forest near Bentong, Pahang on 21 December 2010 – Editor.)

According to the Oxford company, Oxitec, the offspring of the transgenic male with the wild female aedes mosquito will die in the late larval stage if there is no tetracycline in the environment.

The idea that we might be able to use genetically modified mosquitoes to curb dengue in Malaysia raises serious questions regarding the state of intellectual competency in the Health Ministry. Even if we set aside all fears that the introduction of a new gene into the environment at such a large scale might transform either this species of mosquito or some other insect in some unanticipated manner, there are serious problems as to how this transgenic mosquito can be used in practice.

Obviously it cannot be used in areas where there is an outbreak of dengue for two reasons. First, though the production process selects for male mosquitoes on the basis of the difference in weights of the pupae, a certain small portion of female mosquitoes are also released along with the male – around 3-4 per cent according to Oxitec papers. The female transgenic mosquitoes can pick up and transmit the dengue virus from human to human just like the wild type females do (only female mosquitoes need blood feeds). The second reason is that our main method of suppressing a dengue outbreak is to fog the area to ensure that all adult mosquitoes are killed to break the transmission of the virus from person to person. It wouldn’t make sense at all to release millions of transgenic mosquitoes, bought at exorbitant prices (with appropriate mark-ups by the crony company doing the purchasing), and then to fog the entire area. The two modalities – fogging and transgenic mosquito release – cannot be used together.

So that means the transgenic mosquitoes will have to be released only in areas where there are no current cases of dengue, but where there is a population of aedes mosquitoes – and that is about almost every town in Malaysia. Biological suppression such as this, even if successful, can only curtail the aedes population. It will not eliminate the aedes mosquito from the habitat completely. So, the Ministry of health will have to keep on purchasing and releasing these transgenic critters on an ongoing basis. We would need billions of transgenic mosquitoes for an average sized city! Has anyone seen an official estimate of how much this will cause the Health Ministry each year? Wouldn’t it be more productive if that same sum were spent in improving the drains and sewerage systems in our urban areas?

I really would like to know whether the plan is for the Health Ministry to purchase the transgenic mosquitoes directly from Oxitec or whether there is a crony company already sidling up to take over that difficult job. May we know the name please, and the personalities involved – perhaps then we would understand where this hare-brained scheme is coming from!

If there is no convincing explanation how this technology can be used in a cost-effective manner, then there is no point at all in exposing the people in Bentong and Alor Gajah to genetically modified aedes mosquitoes. The government should call off all field trials until all the economic and bio-safety issues have been resolved.

Aliran member Dr Jeyakumar Devaraj, a respiratory physician who once won a gold medal from the Malaysian Medical Association for community service, is the Member of Parliament for Sungai Siput

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Dr Jeyakumar Devaraj, a long-time Aliran member and contributor, served as Member of Parliament for Sungai Siput from 2008 to 2018. A respiratory physician who was awarded a gold medal for community service, he is also a secretariat member of the Coalition Against Health Care Privatisation and chairperson of the Socialist Party of Malaysia.
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