GM Free Cymru

GM mosquitoes release -- unregulated, uncontrolled and unethical

Added 4th January 2011

Thanks are due to GeneWatch UK for exposing the latest GM scandal -- an unregulated and uncontrolled release of GM mosquitoes into the wild, in the Cayman Islands. The male GM mosquitoes have been "designed" by a company called Oxitec to be sterile or almost sterile -- the theory being that they will mate with the females of the species but that they will not reproduce. So the population of the targetted mosquito should plummet, leaving the environment free of the mosquito linked to the spread of dengue fever. According to the Oxford- based company, they released around 3.3 million sterile males over the 6 month study period, and found that the wild populations were reduced by 80% as a result. According to local blogs on Grand Cayman, local people have also seen a reduction in the mosquito population, as a result of which some of them, at least, are delighted. Nature has published a gushing and typically cockeyed blog piece (reproduced below) claiming that this is a fantastic GM "good news" story, on the basis that the trial "has successfully wiped out dengue fever in a town of around 3000 people." So far so good -- so what is the problem?

Well, the problem is a very big one. For a start, the Nature report is a typical piece of GM industry spin, written by a journalist (Natasha Gilbert) who has simply picked up on the Oxitec press release and has not bothered to check her facts. The headline --"GM mosquitoes wipe out dengue fever in trial" -- is nonsense, since dengue fever was not a big problem on Grand Cayman in the first place, with just a few cases reported each year. And which town of 3,000 people is she referring to? Maybe she just invented it........

Much more seriously, it is clear that Grand Cayman was selected for this experiment because it has no proper regulatory regime for the control of releases of GM organisms into the wild, and as a small independent country it does not have the resources for an in-depth analysis of research or experimental proposals that may be put forward by biotechnology or other companies. The Government is not signed up to the Cartagena Protocols, so the island was the ideal testing ground for Oxitec and an easy place for the company to "spin" the supposed benefits of its trial. It is the ideal scenario for all biotechnology companies to conduct their experiments without a heavy regulatory burden and without too many external interests able to call them to account. So the company has acted both cynically and opportunistically.

What is more concerning is the apparent lack of any ethical oversight by Oxford University, or by any of the project funders, or by the bodies supposedly controlling research in this area. As Genewatch has pointed out, former UK science minister Lord Drayson and former President of the Royal Society Bob May have both acted as advisors to investors in the company (Oxford University Challenge Seed Fund and East Hill Management LLC respectively), and the company has also received significant public subsidy, including more than £2.5 million in grants from the UK government-funded Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council (BBSRC), mostly for joint projects with Oxford University. Grant aid has been received from the Wellcome Fund and from the Gates Foundation. Key personnel in the company have worked in the past for Syngenta. The BBSRC reports that Oxitec’s founder Luke Alphey: “is also working towards developing regulatory frameworks for GM insects internationally and within a number of countries including the USA.” There is also considerable involvement from company personnel in WHO and UN working groups and conferences on risk assessment, disease control, biological control systems etc.

Thus we find a situation in which not only does Oxitec have powerful friends in high places, but benefits from an effective "hands off" approach from BBSRC and other funders on ethical issues. This lack of scrutiny is a scandal. Even worse, the very people who are likely to benefit commercially from the promotion and sale of GM mosquitoes into the wild are heavily involved in the development of regulatory frameworks -- which will then be used to control (or not control) their commercialized and patented life forms.

Not to put too fine a point on it, this whole business stinks..........

GeneWatch UK Press Release

14th December 2010

British Overseas Territory used as private lab for GM mosquito company

A new GeneWatch UK briefing questions the role of the British scientific establishment in the release of three million genetically modified (GM) mosquitoes in the Cayman Islands earlier this year (1). The secret experiments were revealed by UK biotech company Oxitec last month, which claimed misleadingly that the mosquitoes were sterile. The GeneWatch briefing shows that no public consultation was undertaken on potential risks and informed consent was not sought from local people. Oxitec is a spin-out company from Oxford University and the trials were funded by the Wellcome Trust: neither body appears to have required any ethical oversight before using Grand Cayman for the trials.

Oxford University is an investor in Oxitec, which it expects to generate income for it in the future. The company also owes £2.25 million to a multi-millionaire venture capital investor in Boston, which it is due to pay back by 2013. The company is losing £1.7 million a year and its business plan requires it to commercialise its products and charge ongoing fees for continual releases of the GM mosquitoes, which are intended to reduce the transmission of the dengue virus. Former science minister Lord Drayson and former Royal Society President Lord May both acted as advisors to investors in the company.

GeneWatch UK's Director, Dr Helen Wallace said: "The British scientific establishment is acting like the last bastion of colonialism, using an Overseas Territory as a private lab. There is no excuse for funding trials without public consultation or ethical oversight to help out a spin-out company that is heavily in debt".

Trials of the same GM mosquitoes are expected in Malaysia soon. The biggest risk with the company's approach is that a different, more invasive species of mosquito (the Asian Tiger mosquito) may move into the ecological niche vacated by the species it is targeting (the Yellow Fever mosquito), potentially transmitting more diseases and becoming harder to eradicate. The company has created GM Asian Tiger mosquitoes with a view to marketing these in future to tackle this expected problem.

"People in Malaysia should make their own decision about how to best tackle dengue," said Dr Wallace, "But they need to be informed about the potential risks and why the company is so keen to push ahead. There is a real danger that this approach to reducing mosquito populations could lead to harm to public health. It is also likely to lock developing countries into continual payments for ongoing releases of two GM mosquito products."

Oxitec's scientists have published computer models of falling mosquito populations as a result of releasing their GM mosquitoes, but they have not included the effect of the two different species of mosquitoes, and their interactions with the four forms of the dengue virus and other tropical diseases.

Oxitec has close links to the GM crop company Syngenta and is also developing GM versions of agricultural pests which it intends to commercialise in future, partly to combat the growing problem of resistant pests, caused by the use of pest resistant (Bt) GM maize, soybeans and cotton (2). It has received significant public subsidies, including more than £2.5 million in grants from the UK government- funded Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council (BBSRC), mainly for joint projects with Oxford University.

For further information contact: Dr Helen Wallace 01298-24300 (office); 07903-311584 (mobile)

Notes for editors:

(1) Oxitec's genetically-modified mosquitoes: in the public interest? GeneWatch UK briefing. December 2010. Available on: http://www.genewatch.org/uploads/f03c6d66a9b354535738483c1c3d49e4/Oxitecbrief_fin.pdf

(2) Oxitec's agricultural pest products are listed on: http://www.oxitec.com/our-targets/agricultural-pests/ Bollworms genetically-modified to contain a fluorescent marker have been tested in the USA but these were sterilised using radiation, rather than being genetically-modified with Oxitec's 'conditional-lethality' trait. Cotton bollworm pests resistant to the Bt toxin used in GM cotton were reported this week in India: http://www.telegraphindia.com/1101212/jsp/frontpage/story_13290179.jsp#top

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CAYMAN MOSQUITO RELEASE WAS ACT OF ”COLONIALISM”

Cayman News Service, Cayman Islands

http://www.caymannewsservice.com/science-and-nature/2010/12/14/cayman-mosquito-release-was-act-%E2%80%9Ccolonialism%E2%80%9D

14.12.2010

(CNS): A UK not-for-profit public interest group has criticized the British scientists that released three million genetically modified (GM) mosquitoes on Grand Cayman this year. GeneWatch said that the use of an overseas territory without public consultation for such an experiment was an act of colonialism. The organisation, which investigates how genetic technologies will impact food, health, agriculture, environment and society, said Oxitec had misleadingly claimed the mosquitoes released in Cayman were sterile and that there was no ethical oversight before using Cayman for the trials.

”The British scientific establishment is acting like the last bastion of colonialism, using an Overseas Territory as a private lab,” said GeneWatch UK’s Director, Dr Helen Wallace. ”There is no excuse for funding trials without public consultation or ethical oversight to help out a spin-out company that is heavily in debt.”

The trials were conducted by Oxitec, in which Oxford University is an investor. The company also owes £2.25 million to a multi-millionaire venture capital investor in Boston, which it is due to pay back by 2013. The company is losing £1.7 million a year and its business plan requires it to commercialise its products and charge ongoing fees for continual releases of the GM mosquitoes, which are intended to reduce the transmission of the dengue virus.

Trials of the same GM mosquitoes are expected in Malaysia soon. The biggest risk with the company’s approach is that a different, more invasive species of mosquito (the Asian Tiger mosquito) may move into the ecological niche vacated by the species it is targeting (the Yellow Fever mosquito), potentially transmitting more diseases and becoming harder to eradicate. The company has created GM Asian Tiger mosquitoes with a view to marketing these in future to tackle this expected problem.

”People in Malaysia should make their own decision about how to best tackle dengue,” said Dr Wallace, ”But they need to be informed about the potential risks and why the company is so keen to push ahead. There is a real danger that this approach to reducing mosquito populations could lead to harm to public health. It is also likely to lock developing countries into continual payments for ongoing releases of two GM mosquito products.”

Oxitec’s scientists have published computer models of falling mosquito populations as a result of releasing their GM mosquitoes, but they have not included the effect of the two different species of mosquitoes and their interactions with the four forms of the dengue virus and other tropical diseases, the activist group said.

Oxitec has close links to the GM crop company Syngenta and is also developing GM versions of agricultural pests, which it intends to commercialise in future, partly to combat the growing problem of resistant pests caused by the use of pest resistant (Bt) GM maize, soybeans and cotton.

It has received significant public subsidies, including more than £2.5 million in grants from the UK government-funded Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council (BBSRC), mainly for joint projects with Oxford University.

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This is now "Nature" spun the story:

GM mosquitoes wipe out dengue fever in trial

November 11, 2010

http://blogs.nature.com/news/thegreatbeyond/2010/11/gm_mosquitoes_wipe_out_dengue.html

The controlled release of male mosquitoes genetically engineered to be sterile has successfully wiped out dengue fever in a town of around 3000 people, in Grand Cayman, an island in the Caribbean Sea, researchers report.

The release is the first field trial of GM dengue-carrying mosquitoes (Aedes aegypti) developed by scientists at Oxitec, a UK-based company founded and part-owned by the University of Oxford. (You can see a video of the release here.) The researchers reported the findings of the study, which ran from May to October this year, on 4 November and briefed journalists about the research at a press meeting today in London.

Dengue fever is a debilitating disease carried by biting female A.aegypti mosquitoes and causing around 25,000 human deaths a year. It mainly occurs in the tropics, but it is spreading to other climes. Paul Reiter, a medical entomology at the Pasteur Institute in Paris, told reporters that a case was reported in Holland around 4 weeks ago, and two cases have been reported in the south of France this year.

Current control methods, including bed nets and insecticides, have proved unsuccessful in controlling the disease. In addition, a vaccine has not yet been developed, and is unlikely to be available for at least 10 years, Reiter said.

Many agricultural pests are controlled through the release of sterile males. They mate with wild females and but do not produce viable offspring, and so the population size falls. If numbers drop far enough, the disease they carry can’t spread.

Traditionally, males are sterilised by exposing them to radiation. But A.aegypti proved to be highly sensitive to the radiation, to the extent that they were unable to compete successfully with their wild counterparts for mates. So instead the researchers decided to tweak the mosquitoes’ genes to induce sterility. And it worked. The wild females liked the GM males just as much as their fertile counterparts.

They released around 3.3 million sterile males over the 6 month study period, and found that the wild populations were reduced by 80% as a result – a level sufficient to effectively wipe out dengue fever in the area. “We saw a significant reduction in the target population”, Luke Alphey chief scientific officer and founder of Oxitec said.

The GM males are engineered to die off in the wild, and so - Oxitec says - they do not pose a risk by persisting in the environment. The females will only mate with males of the same species, so the genetically modified trait cannot spread to other species.

Alphey said a number of other countries have expressed interest in the technology including Brazil, Panama and Malaysia, the latter of which will begin fields trials in the next few months.