May 24, 2020

THE EDITOR SPEAKS: Frankenstein mosquitoes and transparency


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There has been much publicity in the world wide press regarding the release of genetically modified (GM) mosquitoes here in the Cayman Islands by the UK firm Oxitec. On Grand Cayman, where we have the Aedes aegypti, a mosquito that carries and transmits the dengue fever virus (although cases reported here are rare). For every natural male, 10 modified male mosquitoes were released, or a total of three million GM mosquitoes. As a result, a wild female is more likely to mate with a modified male, thereby producing self-destructing offspring. In just four months, the entire mosquito population in the test area was reduced by 80%.

Excellent? Yes. But ………..

The GM release here was done with the majority of us living here kept in the dark. Why? The authorities here knew and gave the go ahead. But these GM (referred to as Frankenstein bugs) mosquitoes have mated with the female ones and these female ones can and do bite us!

We have seen too many horrific movies about mutant bugs being let loose on unsuspecting humans in remote islands by evil biotech firms concerned with making huge profits from the experiment. They don’t care for the humans being exposed to these Frankenstein bugs they just want to see what happens.

I have a horrible feeling that this is why we were all kept in the dark. There would have been an instant cry of “No” because we are not educated enough to understand that the risk is zero. The news of the experiment that took place was not released to the general public until a year after it had happened.

The key question is about what scientists may and may not do. Can they simply release flying, human-biting laboratory-made creatures into the air? And who controls such activity if this is undertaken for a firm that seeks to profit from it?

Oxitec already holds the monopoly on GM insects. Companies like them don’t like divulging their plans, preferring to keep their technology under wraps, particularly when it comes to potential dangers.

As Reafael von Bredow in an article on the subject published in SPIEGEL ONLINE says, “the work of biotech companies must necessarily be the exact opposite of what scientific research ought to be: transparent. That’s the crux of the matter.” Guy Reeves, a researcher at the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Biology in Plön, northern Germany, said in the renowned scientific journal ‘PLoS Neglected Tropical Diseases’: “The Grand Cayman experiment wasn’t an exception; a mere oversight by muddle-headed scientists that somehow forgot to inform the local population adequately on their way from the lab to the field. Whatever happened in the Caymans is quite likely to be used as a model for releases in your community, wherever you live in the world.”

Whilst I have no doubt we were at minimum risk and the experiment will probably result in dengue fever being brought under control, Luke Alphey, a genetic engineer, who dreamed up the idea of the novel insects while he was at Oxford, admits his technique isn’t perfect yet, and GM females may therefore also be released accidentally. And we have to take him at his word that the larva-killing protein definitely can’t be injected into the human blood stream. Unfortunately, like so much else, he can offer not peer-reviewed scientific proof. Alphey claimed that he spoke to people on Grand Cayman (he doesn’t say how many and whom) telling them what he was doing and the “Islanders didn’t even ask me about it. It’s not really for us to tell them what their concerns should be.”

Wow. What an attitude and a complete lack of openness. As Guy Reeves summed up, “One has to answer these fundamental questions that most people will have before releasing the animals.”

I am sure, like you, I do not want to be used as a guinea pig, without being informed first. I most certainly don’t want to end up as a subject in a movie on the Scifi Channel.

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