Why steamroll GM aedes trials despite protests?

The Consumers’ Association of Penang (CAP) and Sahabat Alam Malaysia (SAM) call upon the National Biosafety Board (NBB) to revoke the approval given to the Institute for Medical Research (IMR) in October 2010 to release genetically modified (GM) male aedes aegypti mosquitoes for the purpose of a field experiment.  

The applicant and implementer of the field trial is the IMR which had developed the GM mosquitoes in a joint research with UK-based biotech company Oxitec Ltd.

The field trial which was supposed to be carried out last December in uninhabited and inhabited sites in the districts of Bentong, Pahang and Alor Gajah, Malacca was reportedly delayed because of bad weather.  

Following the NBB’s decision, CAP and SAM had submitted a memorandum to the Malaysian government on 20 December 2010 raising our concerns on serious ethical, legal, public health and human rights issues.   

29 organisations in Malaysia and 87 civil society organisations throughout the world, concerned by the impending release of the GM mosquitoes, had also raised their apprehension in open letters to the authorities.

Malaysia will be the first country to release this particular strain of GM aedes aegypti mosquitoes OX513A (My1). The only other country which has released GM aedes mosquitoes with the same transgenic construct is the Cayman Islands - a British overseas territory.

In November 2010, international reports had revealed that Oxitec publicly announced its GM aedes mosquitoes’ field trials in the Cayman Islands only one year after the event.

The field releases in the Cayman Islands in 2009 and 2010 were controversial and calls have been made for a transparent assessment of the full, long-term health and environmental impacts of these trials in the Cayman Islands, pending which, no further field releases of GM mosquitoes should occur anywhere else.

Besides this, GeneWatch UK, a science-based not-for-profit organisation, has conducted and published an investigation of Oxitec’s role in the development, patenting and promotion of the use of these genetically-modified (GM) mosquitoes.

GeneWatch UK is concerned that the novelty of this application of GM technology has made regulators in several countries too dependent on advice provided by Oxitec which has a vested interest in speeding its products into the market place in order to generate financial returns for its investors.

In GeneWatch UK’s view this means that a number of potential risks have been omitted or downplayed.

The fact that this project involves the creation and propagation of a deadly insect and its eventual release in the natural environment means that it is a dangerous and risky enterprise.

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.

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.

Mosquitoes, natural or engineered, do not respect national borders. It is not possible for any country to control mosquitoes from crossing their borders in this age of air travel and large scale movements of people and materials.

For this reason, releasing a GM mosquito must be considered as a worldwide release as it will potentially affect every nation on the planet. Hence, were Malaysia’s neighbouring countries such as Singapore, Indonesia and Thailand officially informed about the impending release?

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?

What if the experiment does not go according to plan and something goes terribly wrong with the release? First and foremost, Oxitec will not be wholly liable as IMR is the applicant for the release.

It is regrettable that the authorities seem intent on allowing the trials to go ahead, despite public calls to be cautious and to take into account the precautionary approach based on valid concerns.

That we are dealing with GM insects especially disease-carrying mosquitoes’ on which there are very few guidelines for biosafety assessment simply because there is very little information to go on, should be a push for the precautionary approach.

Malaysia should uphold transparency, rigorous scientific standards, the precautionary principle, justice and human rights, and ethical and lawful practices. Otherwise, we will be opening the floodgates for foreign corporations to dump in Malaysia other GM insects, crops, food, feed and processing in the future.

What is at stake is the health of Malaysians and our neighbours, our environment and biological diversity.

We hereby call upon the NBB in consultation with the Genetic Modification Advisory Committee to review and revoke the approval for the field release of these GM mosquitoes as allowed for under the Biosafety Act 2007.

 


The writer is the president of Association of Penang (CAP) and Sahabat Alam Malaysia.