Mosquitoes that have been genetically modified in order to reduce the risk of humans contracting dengue fever have been created in a laboratory in the UK, but it has recently been claimed that they might be harmful to human health.
The criticism has come from a group that are known for being critical of genetic modification. The company responsible for developing the mosquito in Oxford, has said that the claims are warrantless and are just there to scare people about genetically modified organisms.
The genetically modified mosquito has had its gene structure altered so that there is a lethal gene inside the male mosquito. These mosquitoes can be released into the wild and every time they mate with a female, their offspring will die. Studies involving the mosquito have already taken place in several locations around the world and they have largely shown success in reducing the amount of dengue fever.
The company has stated that the genetically modified mosquito will have no long-term impact because the males with the altered gene structure soon die. However, the research has been criticised by groups such as GeneWatch UK, Friends of the Earth and Third World Network. The groups criticizing Oxitec, who developed the mosquito, have said that the firm’s own research brings to light questions about long-term impact of the mosquito.
The reason the male mosquitoes cannot survive long-term in the wild, is because they require the antibiotic, tetracycline. Without this they are unable live and they quickly die. Information released by the company has however highlighted that they do not always die as quickly as expected. Around 15 percent of the companies mosquitoes survived for a longer time than they wanted, critics have said this is because tetracycline does appear in the wild, often in sewage.
Critics have said that the company is purposefully concealing information about how these males could survive in the wild, although Oxitec have denied these allegations. Eric Hoffman from the American branch of Friends of the Earth has stated, “The problem is that the ecological implications of this type of genetically modified mosquito being released into the wild are currently unknown. There must be impartial review and a comprehensive analysis of the effect of these mosquitoes before they can be released. Further research must be done into the ethical risks and potential harm to human health.”
Helen Wallace is the head of GeneWatch UK and she has stated, “This company are keeping information away from the public and this is not an acceptable way of doing research. There could be fundamental flaws in the technology and it’s important that people are made aware of these risks.”
In other projects, Oxitec have developed a type of moth that is capable of reducing the number of attacks moths are doing to crops in the UK. They expect that testing of this genetically modified moth will commence later this year. Before any genetically modified organism is released into the wild the company will have to get approval from DEFRA.
Hadyn Parry is the Chief Executive of the company and he has stated, “We’re not trying to keep information away from people. The criticism of this development is nothing more than scaremongering, and it is of poor quality at that.
“They made no effort to contact us before they released the material and this serves only to confuse the public. Regulatory systems exist everywhere to make sure that no release can take place without the proper precautions being taken. The chance of these mosquitoes having an unintended effect is extremely unlikely simply because they cannot get access to enough tetracycline.”