The mosquito that may be our dragon

Posted on January 27, 2011. Filed under: Bio-diversity |

-The Sun-

IN some countries, locals have since time immemorial harboured fears of mythical dragons in their midst, that are said to bring ills and dangers to the people. There are no such creatures known in Malaysia, but events of late may just alter that perception, with the feared dragon being none other than a tiny mosquito.

In October 2010, the National Biosafety Board approved an application from the Institute for Medical Research (IMR) to conduct a field experiment on a special kind of mosquito. What the experiment entailed was the release of several of the male Aedes aegypti mosquitoes at sites in Bentong, Pahang, and Alor Gajah, Malacca, for them to be recaptured later.

The first trial was reportedly conducted in December with the release of 6,000 genetically modified mosquitoes, purportedly designed to comb at dengue fever.

And Malaysia is said to be the first country to release this particular strain of Aedes aegypti mosquito which is labelled OX513A (My1).

It was no wonder then that the application by IMR – which developed the genetically modified mosquitoes in a joint research with a UK-based biotech company, Oxitec Ltd – caught the attention of certain scientific circles around the world.

GeneWatch UK, a science-based not for profit organisation, conducted an investigation of Oxitec’s role in the genetically-modified mosquitoes. It also published its comments on a risk-assessment report of the Malaysian Genetic Modification Advisory Committee (GMAC) for the application to conduct the limited “Mark-Release-Recapture” of the mosquito.

This is what GeneWatch UK said: “We are concerned that the novelty of this application of GM (genetically modified) technology has made regulators in several countries too dependent on advice provided by the company, which has a vested interest in speeding its products into the market place to generate financial returns for its investors. In GeneWatch’s view this means that a number of potential risks have been omitted or downplayed.”

GeneWatch was not the only organisation that expressed its concern. Inevitably, NGOs in Malaysia also jumped at the approval, becoming alarmed at any possible impact the release of such mosquitoes would have to public health and the ecology at large.

The Consumers Association of Penang (CAP) and Sahabat Alam Malaysia (SAM) submitted a memorandum to the government last Dec 20.

“The GM mosquitoes will be released into a complicated ecosystem, involving other mosquito species, predators and prey, the dengue virus, and the humans who are bitten,” they said in a joint statement. “Because this system is poorly understood there remain unanswered questions about the impacts of the proposed releases.

“The outcome of this experiment is thus unpredictable and largely unknown. If the unintended occurs in the environment, these releases would be impossible to monitor, contain or mitigate and they are irreversible.”

Similar field releases in the Cayman Islands in 2009 and 2010 have also been greeted with controversy, with calls made for transparent assessment of the full impact they would bring – for long-term health and the environment.

The National Biosafety Board was urged to review the application, and revoke the approval for the field release of the mosquitoes. The Biosafety Act 2007 allows for this.

“Given the unpredictable consequences and potential risks, the chances of things going wrong cannot be overstated. Why are we allowing ourselves to be guinea pigs for this doubtful technology?” the NGOs said in their statement.

“What if the experiment does not go according to plan and something goes terribly wrong with the release?”

Mind you, there is also the fact that the mosquitoes do not respect national borders, and any undetected spread of the mosquitoes may affect neighbouring countries.

For this reason, the Malaysian NGOs went as far as to stress that letting out a genetically modified mosquitoes would effectively be a “worldwide release”.

Questions have been asked if countries like Singapore, Indonesia and Thailand had been officially informed about the release.

The Institute for Medical Research said in a statement yesterday that it released 6,000 sterile male lab mosquitoes in a forest area in eastern Malaysia on Dec 21.

But the controversy is now bound to linger on and even gather heat, as the eyes of concerned individuals and the scientific community are set on this unprecedented trial, with fears of whether it may end up releasing a new and little-known dragon within our midst.

Himanshu is theSun’s Penang bureau chief. Comments:



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