Buzz kill: GM mosquito project does more harm than good
Scheme that released millions of engineered insects on an island cancelled after it turns out to be a money-gobbling dud
Plans to use genetically modified mosquitoes to rid the world of the likes of malaria, dengue, yellow fever and zika have faltered after officials admitted that a major pilot had not worked.
Oxitec, the British company that was originally a spinoff from Oxford University, engineered a line of insects whose offspring could not grow into adults, causing the population to crash. Millions of the mosquitoes were released at the British Overseas Territory of Grand Cayman over the past two years, but last week Dwayne Seymour, the environmental health minister, admitted that “the scheme wasn’t getting the results we were looking for” and would not be continued, with the contract formally ending on December 31.
The Mosquito Research and Control Unit (MRCU) on Cayman was concerned that it could put islanders at risk because it was feared that the approach could make diseases worse by reducing immunity, as well as spreading antibiotic-resistant bacteria into the environment.
Earlier in the year a freedom of information request by GeneWatch UK, the campaign group, uncovered a briefing paper showing there had been “no significant reduction in the abundance of mosquitoes in the released area”. They also discovered that the numbers of female mosquitoes that can bite and spread disease had increased.
Dr Helen Wallace, director of GeneWatch UK, warned that spending money on new technologies was wasting money and putting lives at risk by diverting limited resources.
Locals also objected to the release and launched legal proceedings, although judges later ruled the project could go ahead.
However, James McNelly, the MRCU director, said the collaboration had been positive and that work would be continuing over the next few months to assess the efficacy. “The project has given us valuable insight into how Oxitec’s approach might be integrated with our conventional tools.”
Pilots of genetically modified insects are also continuing elsewhere. In September, Burkina Faso granted Target Malaria permission to release 10,000 sterile male mosquitoes. Imperial College also demonstrated this year that it could cause crashes of populations of mosquitoes using gene-driven technology. However, the London team said it would be at least five to 10 years before they would consider releasing the insects into the wild.
– © The Daily Telegraph