GMO Mosquitoes to Control the Spread of Disease Carries Unknown Risks
Every year, around one million people die of mosquito-borne diseases according to the World Health Organization (WHO). This is why mosquitoes are considered one of the deadliest living creatures on the planet — not because they are lethal themselves, but because many of the viruses and parasites they transmit are.
Consider, for example, dengue fever. This mosquito-borne virus is a leading cause of hospitalization and death among children and adults in several countries in Asia and Latin America. In 2016, member states in three of the six WHO regions reported 3.34 million cases.
In the absence of an effective vaccine for dengue fever, Zika fever, chikungunya and other mosquito-borne diseases, researchers have developed genetic strategies to reduce mosquito populations. One such strategy involves the release into the wild of genetically modified (GM) mosquitoes that express a lethal gene — a strategy believed to have little impact on the overall DNA of wild populations of mosquitoes.
As an interdisciplinary group of authors, we generally support technologies that can reduce human disease and suffering. However, given our combined expertise in science, governance and ethics we have concerns that recent decisions to deploy GM mosquitoes have not been made responsibly.
Genetically Modified Mosquitoes
The transfer of new genes from GM organisms to wild or domesticated non-GM populations is a key criticism of GM crops like soybean and corn. There are concerns that the introduction of GM genes into non-target species could have negative consequences for both human and environmental health.
Oxitec, a company that spun out of research at Oxford University in the early 2000s, developed and trademarked GM Friendly™ mosquitoes (also known as strain OX513A of Aedes aegypti). These male GM mosquitoes have what the company describes as a "self-limiting" gene, which means that when these so-called friendly mosquitoes mate, their offspring inherit the self-limiting gene which is supposed to prevent them surviving into adulthood.
In theory, when these mosquitoes are released in high numbers, a dramatic reduction in the mosquito population should follow.
Changes to the Gene Pool
According to research published by Oxitec researchers in 2015, field trials involving recurring releases of Friendly™ mosquitoes demonstrated a reduction of nearly 95 percent of target populations in Brazil. In these field trials, experiments were not performed to assess whether GM mosquitoes might persist in the wild.
A recent study from the Powell lab at Yale University has since confirmed that some of the offspring of the GM mosquitoes didn't succumb to the self-limiting lethal gene and survived to adulthood. They were able to breed with native mosquitoes and thereby introduce some of their genes into the wild population.
The Yale researchers found that mosquitoes captured at six, 12 and up to 30 months post-release carried DNA from the GM mosquito population, thereby disproving "the claim that genes from the release strain would not get into the general population because offspring would die."
It appears that between five and 60 percent of the captured mosquitoes post-release contained genetic sequences inherited from the Friendly™ mosquitoes. Importantly, the number of mosquitoes identified as still containing DNA derived from GM mosquitoes declined between the 12-month and 27-month capture periods specifically, perhaps indicating that the offspring of GM mosquitoes might be less fit in nature after all. This remains to be shown conclusively.
Unknown Potential Impacts
Meanwhile, the impact of mosquitoes carrying these new genes remains largely unknown. One significant worry is that a new breed of mosquito might emerge that is more difficult to control. These new genes could also potentially alter evolutionary pressures on viruses carried by mosquitoes, like dengue fever, in unpredictable ways. This includes potentially increasing their virulence or changing their host-insect interactions. These are hypothetical risks that have been raised by scientists, and reflect the need for further study.
Thus, like GM soybean or corn, there is legitimate concern about the propagation of new genetic material in wild populations with as yet unknown consequences.
Field trials involving the release of GM organisms are typically designed to evaluate safety and efficacy, to assess possible impact on food networks, and to ensure that there is no (or minimal) undue harm to the environment or human health. Put simply, field trials are meant to assess potential harms associated with genetic technologies and to provide opportunities to minimize these harms before moving forward with more large-scale releases.
This raises two important questions: Given that "around 5 percent or less" of the GM mosquito population was expected to survive, shouldn't Oxitec have made plans to assess the risk of gene transfer to wild populations during their initial trials? And shouldn't the Brazilian government have required such an assessment as part of the regulatory approval process, given their awareness of the risk?
Instead, with approval from Brazilian authorities, Oxitec released nearly half a million GM mosquitoes every week into shared environments in Jacobina over a two-year period from 2013 to 2015. This was done without the benefit of adequate risk assessment and without proper public consultation.
Oxitec reports having used leaflets, social media, carnival parades and community meetings to inform the public of their research. Public education is not the same as public consultation and engagement and, in our view, the people living in the vicinity of this release had more than a right to be informed of the plans. They also had a right to participate in relevant decision-making.
On the basis of presumed success in Brazil where mosquito populations were reduced — a consequential reduction in the prevalence of dengue fever has yet to be demonstrated — plans have been made to extend field trials to other jurisdictions, including the Florida Keys in the U.S.
To date, public pushback has temporarily prevented the release of GM mosquitoes in the Florida Keys. But Oxitec hopes to eventually secure approval from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to perform field trials and assess release of a second-generation GM mosquito that causes lethality only in female mosquitoes, as another means to collapse wild populations.
Regulating Genetic Modification
In the end, minus the hyperbole and somewhat alarmist reporting of the Yale study (the journal is looking into allegations brought forth by Oxitec of speculative and unsubstantiated claims), the finding that offspring of GM mosquitoes could survive in the wild remains undisputed. This illustrates the importance of careful decision-making and adequate oversight of field trials involving the release of GM organisms. Careful decision-making requires open venues for informed and deliberative public dialogue, engagement and empowerment.
Genetic modification technologies need to be more transparent, as do the scientific processes for evaluating their risks, especially where the rights and needs of affected communities can inform technology development. With more robust and nuanced regulatory processes governing the development and release of GM organisms, it should be possible to benefit from these technologies without harming or disenfranchising the communities that are the intended beneficiaries.
Mosquito-borne illnesses cause immense human suffering, and we should continue to develop technologies to reduce that suffering. At the same time, we must be equally dedicated to designing scientific processes that are safe, ethical and just.
Reposted with permission from our media associate The Conversation.
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theDOCK aims to innovate the Israeli maritime sector. Pexels<p>The UN hopes that new investments in ocean science and technology will help turn the tide for the oceans. As such, this year kicked off the <a href="https://www.oceandecade.org/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">United Nations Decade of Ocean Science for Sustainable Development (2021-2030)</a> to galvanize massive support for the blue economy.</p><p>According to the World Bank, the blue economy is the "sustainable use of ocean resources for economic growth, improved livelihoods, and jobs while preserving the health of ocean ecosystem," <a href="https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0160412019338255#b0245" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Science Direct</a> reported. It represents this new sector for investments and innovations that work in tandem with the oceans rather than in exploitation of them.</p><p>As recently as Aug. 2020, <a href="https://www.reutersevents.com/sustainability/esg-investors-slow-make-waves-25tn-ocean-economy" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Reuters</a> noted that ESG Investors, those looking to invest in opportunities that have a positive impact in environmental, social and governance (ESG) issues, have been interested in "blue finance" but slow to invest.</p><p>"It is a hugely under-invested economic opportunity that is crucial to the way we have to address living on one planet," Simon Dent, director of blue investments at Mirova Natural Capital, told Reuters.</p><p>Even with slow investment, the blue economy is still expected to expand at twice the rate of the mainstream economy by 2030, Reuters reported. It already contributes $2.5tn a year in economic output, the report noted.</p><p>Current, upward <a href="https://www.ecowatch.com/-innovation-blue-economy-2646147405.html" target="_self">shifts in blue economy investments are being driven by innovation</a>, a trend the UN hopes will continue globally for the benefit of all oceans and people.</p><p>In Israel, this push has successfully translated into investment in and innovation of global ports, shipping, logistics and offshore sectors. The "Startup Nation," as Israel is often called, has seen its maritime tech ecosystem grow "significantly" in recent years and expects that growth to "accelerate dramatically," <a href="https://itrade.gov.il/belgium-english/how-israel-is-becoming-a-port-of-call-for-maritime-innovation/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">iTrade</a> reported.</p><p>Driving this wave of momentum has been rising Israeli venture capital hub <a href="https://www.thedockinnovation.com/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">theDOCK</a>. Founded by Israeli Navy veterans in 2017, theDOCK works with early-stage companies in the maritime space to bring their solutions to market. The hub's pioneering efforts ignited Israel's maritime technology sector, and now, with their new fund, theDOCK is motivating these high-tech solutions to also address ESG criteria.</p><p>"While ESG has always been on theDOCK's agenda, this theme has become even more of a priority," Nir Gartzman, theDOCK's managing partner, told EcoWatch. "80 percent of the startups in our portfolio (for theDOCK's Navigator II fund) will have a primary or secondary contribution to environmental, social and governance (ESG) criteria."</p><p>In a company presentation, theDOCK called contribution to the ESG agenda a "hot discussion topic" for traditional players in the space and their boards, many of whom are looking to adopt new technologies with a positive impact on the planet. The focus is on reducing carbon emissions and protecting the environment, the presentation outlines. As such, theDOCK also explicitly screens candidate investments by ESG criteria as well.</p><p>Within the maritime space, environmental innovations could include measures like increased fuel and energy efficiency, better monitoring of potential pollution sources, improved waste and air emissions management and processing of marine debris/trash into reusable materials, theDOCK's presentation noted.</p>
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