If the idea of the odd GMO ingredient turning up in your lunch doesn’t sit well with you, the idea of a GMO mosquito may send shivers down your spine. Right now, Oxitech, a British biotechnology company is planning to launch a flurry of genetically modified mosquitoes into the wild, with the ultimate goal of bringing an end to Dengue Fever.

Unsurprisingly, the proposal hasn’t been met with universal support and backing – particularly among those residing in the Florida Keys; Oxitech’s proposed ‘ground zero’ for the release of the lab-mutated bugs, which if given the green-light by all necessary regulatory bodies will be fired-out in a several-million-strong wave.

On the surface, this all sounds a little too much like the kind of experimental science that’s just too risky and bizarre to unleash upon the public. Nevertheless, there’s no disputing the apparent nobleness of Oxitech’s cause, or the potentially history-changing benefits their initiative could yield…assuming of course it all goes to plan.

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Dengue Fever – A Growing Threat

In terms of Oxitech’s justification for its proposal, the company has been extremely vocal in expressing its long-standing and growing worries. “We’re concerned about Dengue Fever because of the devastating impact it has on so many people’s lives, and because of the huge costs which Governments and communities must meet in order to try to control this dangerous disease,” reads an extract from the project’s introductory materials Oxitech published online.

As the world’s second most widespread mosquito-borne disease after Malaria, the threat posed by Dengue Fever is real and far-reaching, to say the least. According to the World Health Organization, up to 100 million new cases of the disease are diagnosed every year – the vast majority of which are identified in the world’s poorest countries.

While Dengue Fever may not be fatal in most cases, it presents an array of hideously unpleasant and debilitating symptoms including joint and muscle pain, crippling headaches, skin rashes, fever, loss of appetite, extreme lethargy, and vomiting. In many instances, a life-affecting cocktail of these and other symptoms can rage for weeks at a time.

Along with the severity of Dengue Fever, the fact that the disease is spreading at its fastest rate ever is also a cause for concern. Today, more than 100 countries are affected by Dengue Fever outbreaks – in the mid-1970s, it was just nine nations. Up to 40 per cent of the entire global population may now be at risk, including residents of 28 North American states – as warns the Natural Defense Resource Council.

Oxitech’s “Kill Switch Gene”

As for what Oxitech plans to do about the Dengue Fever crisis, the idea is to create what would essentially be a new genetically modified species of male mosquito (OX513A Aedes aegypti) — specifically engineered to be sterile. But what’s wholly different about the Oxitech approach to historical “Sterile Insect Technique” experiments is that the bugs being fabricated in Britain will still be able to mate and successfully fertilize the eggs of female mosquitoes. How does Sterile Insect Technique differ?

Since it is only the female mosquito that bites and transmits disease, Oxitech only plan to release gentically altered males. A ‘kill switch’ gene is implanted in the male mosquitoes, which produces an effect where future offspring will die. The male GMO mosquitoes are provided with a supplement in the lab which counters the lethal effects of the implanted gene and keeps them alive – effectively working as an antidote. With no access to the antidote, their offspring are killed by the fatal gene they’re born with.

Incidentally, of the 3,500 mosquito species, Aedes aegypti transmits the majority of deadly diseases.

 

In theory therefore, Oxitech’s vision could eventually bring about a quite colossal reduction in disease-spreading mosquito numbers, or perhaps eliminate them entirely. Rather than using conventional drugs to treat infected humans, the company’s approach is to effectively turn male mosquitoes into a genetically engineered cure to wipe out the disease at its source.

 

Clear Advantages

As for how the proposed solution from Oxitech goes above and beyond conventional methods of reducing the spread of Dengue Fever, the company highlighted the flaws of the current approach.

“As well as being unpleasant for people, chemical pesticides can also be damaging to the environment and disrupt natural habitats. One of the biggest problems with these chemicals is that they don’t just harm mosquitoes,” Oxitech proclaimed.

“As a result, pesticide use can damage the ecology of an area, reducing populations of insects which may be important food sources for birds and fish, or which are pollinators for local plants and flowers.”

By essentially infiltrating the mosquito population at its very heart, these ‘last lines of defense’ would no longer be necessary as the threat would largely unravel from the inside. And with protective approaches falling into redundancy, the positive social-economic impact would, for dozens of countries, be borderline revolutionary.

Dangers and Opposition

Opposition to the proposal has been widespread and fierce, to say the least. To date, more than 158,000 signatures have been added to a Change.org petition calling for Oxitech’s proposal to be written-off and ruled-out as a risk the world cannot afford to take.

“Nearly all experiments with genetically-modified crops have eventually resulted in unintended consequences: superweeds more resistant to herbicides, mutated and resistant insects also collateral damage to ecosystems,” the petition warns.

“Why would we not expect GM (genetically modified) insects, especially those that bite humans, to have similar unintended negative consequences?”

Oxitech has already conducted one field test in the Cayman Islands of the Caribbean. They released 18,000 GM mosquitoes over a period of four weeks in a small patch of jungle.

Speaking on behalf of environmental group Friends of the Earth, genetic engineering expert Eric Hoffman is under no illusion that the proposal is far from flawless.

“This technology hasn’t been properly tested, nor is it clear that it’s going to work,” warned Mr. Hoffman.

“The public isn’t being told the whole truth.”

And he’s not alone in his concerns either as most of those opposing Oxitec’s proposal have based their objections around the still-remaining unknowns.

“Clearly, the Florida Keys Mosquito Control District (FKMCD) and biotech company called Oxitec are running an uncontrollable ‘experiment.’ Experiments of this nature are supposed to be first conducted in a locked down laboratory,” according to a clearly opposed Natural Society report on the subject.

“In case things go awry, all the damage can be contained. However, once this GMO mosquito genie is let out of the bottle, there is no getting it back in.”

The concerns of those opposing the initiative are easy to understand. Above all else, the simple truth of the matter is that nobody knows for sure what will happen once these oft-dubbed ‘Frankenstein Mosquitoes’ are released into the wild to go about their business. Will they be effective? And what are the potential risks of synthetic mosquito DNA being passed onto humans or other animal through bites?

As is often the case, it will be impossible to gauge both the effectiveness and the safety of such a radical program for many years to come – and by that time any ill-effects or dangers will likely be irreversible. Suffice to say, the FDA needs some convincing and there’s still no sign of the go-ahead being given, but Oxitech continues to push for what it claims could (at least in theory) be the only workable solution to the world’s growing Dengue Fever crisis.

References and Further Reading:

 

Eddie Jones is a British national from the North of England, who graduated university with First Class BA Honors in Journalism and has been working as a professional writer since 2010. He also has an FND in Journalism and Media Production. Eddie traveled extensively in Ireland, the USA and Thailand and now makes his home in Krakow, Poland where he lives with his fiancé. While he is not writing, he enjoys music, skiing, playing the guitar, and pretending he has a clue in the kitchen.

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