Do you remember how some scientists, researchers, and individuals like Bill Gates were trying to release genetically modified mosquitoes into the environment? Well, that endeavor is not quite over. Australian research scientists have developed a strategy for fighting Dengue fever, a viral disease spread by mosquitoes that affects more than 50 million people annually and causes fever and crippling joint and muscle pain—and in some cases even death. Two towns in Northern Australia have recently been gifted with 10-20 thousand genetically engineered mosquitoes – almost completely replacing mosquitoes naturally occurring in the outdoors.
Dengue kills FAR more people worldwide than influenza, yet it is rarely even mentioned by Western media.
A bacterium named Wolbachiapipientis naturally infects many insect species and has the ability to interfere with its host’s reproductive ability in such a way that entire populations become infected within just a few generationsi. When Wolbachia infects mosquitoes, the mosquitoes’ ability to transmit Dengue virus is almost completely blocked.
Researchers are encouraged that these bacterially infected mosquitoes are safe to humans and, once set loose, are capable of spreading on their own and overtaking the wild mosquito populations that transmit disease to humans.
In two northern Australian towns, between 10,000 and 20,000 of these infected mozzies were released (“mozzie” is Australian for mosquito), and wild mosquito infection rates neared 100 percent—meaning, mosquitoes that can infect humans were almost completely replaced by the ones that can’t.
This approach is a change from the swarms of genetically engineered mosquitoes being bred by companies like Oxitec, a British biotechnology company that has released millions of mutant mosquitoes into the fields of unsuspecting Australians.
Oxitec has found a way to genetically manipulate Aedes aegypti, the mosquito species mainly responsible for transmitting Dengue and yellow fever viruses to humans. These “frankenskeeters” represent a new and terrifying twist in potential GMO (genetically modified organisms) dangers—another product of modern science outpacing common sense when big money is thrown into the equation.
Dengue is a Far Worse Problem than Influenza
Dengue fever is on the rise worldwide and spreading faster than any other insect-borne viral disease. It is a threat to people in more than 100 countries, potentially affecting 2.5 billion people worldwide. Dengue infection typically causes high fever, crushing headache, severe pain behind your eyes, rash, and excruciating pain in your joints and spine, which is why it’s sometimes called “break bone fever.” Dr. Renu Daval-Drager of the World Health Organization says some cases of Dengue can be fatal, particularly the more serious Dengue hemorrhagic fever.
This under-recognized infectious disease used to be restricted to tropical areas; however, it has recently made its way into Texas, Florida and other southern states and is endemic in 125 countries. And Dengue has reached epidemic levels in Central America.
Outbreaks of Dengue virus occur primarily in areas where Aedes aegypti and sometimes Aedes albopictus mosquitoes live and breed. This includes most tropical areas of the world—the same places where malaria is found. Dengue is also spread by travelers who become infected while visiting Dengue-infested regions.
In the Americas, all four Dengue virus types are now present. Worldwide, there are about three to five million cases of influenza annually. However, there are about 100 million cases of Dengue fever annually, worldwide—20 times more cases than influenza!
In the past, the best means for preventing the spread of Dengue involved sustainable, community-based, integrated mosquito control, with limited reliance on chemical insecticides. However, new high-tech strategies are being developed to further combat the spread of this deadly virus. Some of these strategies involve genetically manipulating mosquitoes and then releasing them back into the wild, which can have any number of unforeseen consequences.
No Biotechnology is Without Some Risk
The scientific community has expressed concern about introducing a new type of mosquito that is infected with a bacterium that could be transmitted to humans. However, researchers claim Wolbachia bacterium is completely benign to humans.
Different Genetically Engineered Mosquitoes?
Although the mosquitoes released are still GM, they aren’t exactly the same as the more well-known mosquitoes developed my Oxitec. Oxitec is a British company responsible for the creation of the genetically engineered mosquitoes containing a gene designed to kill themselves unless given an antibiotic known as tetracycline. The company created this internally manipulated insect to help control agricultural pests and reduce insect-borne diseases like dengue fever and malaria.
These new mosquitoes released in Australia, however, are developed with a slightly different strategy. A bacterium named Wolbackiapipientis infects numerous insects species, and harnesses the ability to alter it’s hosts reproductive ability. When this happens, entire populations become infected within generations, and when the bacterium infects mosquitoes, the mosquitoes’ ability to pass on the dengue virus vanishes.
Needless to say, numerous scientists, researchers, and many individuals have expressed concern regarding the release of genetically engineered mosquitoes. The first mosquito release by Oxitec took place in the Cayman Islands in the Caribbean in 2009, only for a second trial to occur in 2010, where 6,000 mosquitoes were released in Malaysia for further experiments. Now, 10-20 thousand mosquitoes were released in Australia, drilling the environment with even more genetically modified creations. As mentioned, many people are not happy about this.
Some individuals, such as Daniel Strickman, point out the obvious discomfort surrounding the possibility that the bacterium could become out of control once released – in a way that does not naturally occur in nature. In addition, mosquitoes less susceptible to dengue infection could in turn become more susceptible to other viruses.
Unfortunately, no peer-reviewed scientific proof of the safety of such biotechnologies can be offered. Long-term effects have not been at all measured, and once these insects are released, they can not be recalled. Here are but a few of the questions and issues regarding GM mosquitoes (or any GM insect for that matter).
Will Oxitec need to acquire the free and informed consent of residents in Key West for the release of the GM mosquitoes? With the previous release of the mosquitoes in the Cayman Islands there was no public consultation taken on potential risks and informed consent was not given from locals.
What could happen to the ecosystem and local food chain with the major decrease in the Aedes aegypti mosquito population?
Tetracycline, the antibiotic Oxitec’s genetically engineered mosquitoes are supposed to have no contact with, is showing up in the environment. With tetracycline being present in the wild, these GE mosquitoes would survive and thrive.
Mosquitoes can develop resistance to the lethal gene inputted by Oxitec. In fact, 3.5 percent of the insects survived to adulthood in laboratory tests despite carrying the lethal gene, according to Todd Shelly, an entomologist for the Agriculture Department in Hawaii.
0.5 percent of the released insects are female (the gender which bites humans); what happens to humans if bitten by the female mosquitoes?
Who regulates releases, and who will be responsible in the event of complications – to any degree?
The truth is that we have no idea what the future holds for genetic modification and the potential impacts it has on the environment and public health. We know that the genetically engineered mosquitoes are equipped with a lethal gene designed to lower the mosquito population, but what does that really mean for humans? We simply do not know the potential outcomes that could arise from such creations.