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GM mosquitoes: Horror story in the making?

 | February 8, 2011

Doc Jeyakumar makes some stinging comments about IMR’s anti-dengue programme.

SUNGAI SIPUT: The use of laboratory mosquitoes to fight dengue may turn out to be a catastrophic mistake, according to Sungai Siput MP Dr D Jeyakumar, who is a respiratory physician.

The biggest danger, he said, was that the release of large numbers of genetically modified (GM) mosquitoes into the environment could cause the transformation of the mosquitoes themselves or some other insect in some unanticipated manner that might be difficult to control.

Last Dec 21, the Institute of Medical Research (IMR) secretly released about 6,000 GM male Aedes aegypti mosquitoes at a forest near Bentong to test their flight range and ability to survive in the wild. The field test was announced only late last month.

“The experiment was successfully concluded on Jan 5,” IMR Director Dr Shahnaz Murad said in a press statement. “Fogging with insecticide was conducted on Jan 6 to eliminate all mosquitoes but monitoring will continue for up to two months.”

Jeyakumar said he could punch holes into this attempt to cast a safety net around the GM mosquito programme.

“The catch is that the two modalities of fogging and transgenic mosquito release are at loggerheads and cannot be used together.”

According to Oxitec, the British company that developed the GM mosquitoes, the offspring of the transgenic male and the wild female Aedes mosquito will die in the late larval stage if the environment is free of tetracycline, an antibiotic.

Fogging is used to suppress a dengue outbreak to ensure that all adult mosquitoes are killed.

Jeyakumar questioned the rationale of buying millions of transgenic mosquitoes at exorbitant prices only to kill them through fogging.

Improving drains

He claimed that the process of producing the male GM mosquitoes was not foolproof. He said 3% to 4% of them would be female and could copy the role of the wild female Aedes to spread dengue.

He said such biological suppression could not completely eliminate the species from the environment and the government would have to go on purchasing, releasing and killing the GM mosquitoes.

“We would need billions of these transgenic mosquitoes for an average sized city,” he said.

“Wouldn’t it be more logical and productive if that same sum were spent in improving the drains and sewerage systems in our urban areas?”

He asked whether the Health Ministry would purchase the transgenic mosquitoes directly from Oxitec or whether there was a crony local company to act as middleman.


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