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Guilt by association: GM Mosquito = Monsanto Profits

September 26, 2010 - 23:16 -- Mark Benedict

Researchers who have been devoting themselves to creation of mosquitoes that cannot transmit disease are facing formidable foes: a warm reception for specious arguments and deep pocket anti-GM organizations.Plans to release GM mosquitoes in Malaysia provide a window into the opposition. Will GM mosquitoes be given a chance to improve human health?


Scientists imagine that reasonable people will be convinced by reasonable arguments. Unfortunately, many (including myself) are often persuaded by emotional arguments that reach deep into the labyrinth of our hopes and fears. Environmental groups have successfully exploited this knowledge to advocate that NO transgenic organism is ever released. Some object even to their creation (see this example under WG2).


In the case of GM crops, this effort has failed though environmental groups continue to slow their spread. One must assume that allowing the release of a transgenic mosquito would be a slippery slope down which opponents might slide with increasing velocity (see example). Certainly discussions of the possible benefit are not among their talking points, and existing methods are just fine, thank you very much.


It has been interesting to see the reception that Oxitec’s plan to release transgenic Aedes aegypti in Malaysia is receiving. My friend and colleague Bart Knols correctly believes their implementation can and must be managed (see this). Such efforts are welcome, but perusal of many of the letters that have appeared (in English) in Malaysian newspapers provides insight into how entrenched the opposition is, and would be regardless of any reasoning or how engaged the stakeholders are.


In fact, not all blogs are negative. I found one that actually seemed to be open to the possibility that GM mosquitoes might have benefit. Some are just confusing but oppose.


There are calm defenders, but judging by one of the comments to this article and several found elsewhere, those who are creating GM mosquitoes are simply interested in profits. (Heaven forbid, but if one is pre-disposed to oppose profitability, then it’s a good argument.) Then there are others who submit letters that must stretch the imagination of even the most sympathetic:


“And these GM mosquitoes are an invasive/exotic species because they have new traits not available in other mosquito species.”


Putting aside the fact that the trait at issue here is death of the insect that carries it, I have to admit they have a point!


Some interests have other agendas against which no headway can be expected. The Pesticide Action Network Asia and the Pacific (PAN AP) has been active in the opposition, but I suspect that few public health officials share their extremist views (for which see WG2) in which:


“PAN DEMANDS ... A ban on the release into the environment of Genetically Modified Organisms (GMO) and on the use of GMO, its derivatives and any products that contain them in food and agriculture.


We oppose the genetic manipulation of crops, even in enclosed spaces.”


Well, they tried.


One of the more obvious strategies of opposition is to lump transgenic mosquitoes with transgenic crops. It’s all about the money. Frankenfood becomes Frankenmosquito.


I am not one who rushes to release. Those who are familiar with my publications will recognize that I have anticipated the need to work safely with vectors - even those that are not transgenic, and that I have contributed to guidelines to ensure this. Neither I, nor the colleagues in this field that I know, anticipate “big profits” from the release of transgenic mosquitoes. I know of only one biotech company that has activity in this area, and as I understand it, they have not made the first cent yet. Why hasn’t Monsanto grabbed this lucrative market?


So we are facing a mix of hardline anti-GM attitude, anti-capitalism, confusion, misinformation, open-mindedness and simple fear. For some, education and engagement will be fruitful to gain acceptance: for others, reason is irrelevant. Some who are open-minded will reasonably not accept them. Proponents can hope that GM mosquitoes – if indeed found to be useful – will be available for the countries that chose them. Those choices will not be agreed upon by all, but respect for those who have serious concerns means that reasonable efforts to communicate the risks and benefits must be made. For the sake of those who might benefit from them, GM mosquitoes should be given a chance to prove their merit – or not – in safely conducted trials. Not allowing even these may rob the world of one of the most beneficial technological innovations of biology. We all would be richer for that.










Bart G.J. Knols's picture
Submitted by Bart G.J. Knols on


This is a very important contribution, and although this pertains to dengue, the same story goes for malaria (recently a lab was opened in Mali to start research on GM Anopheles).

The final step of moving from the lab into the field, has always been the one that was put on the backburner 'And will be dealt with when the time for release is approaching'. Now that it this point has come, it was bound to face criticism from those opposing GMOs.

The latest I have heard was that the trial in Malaysia has been put on hold for the second time (after an initial proposed release was cancelled last year). Apparently, on 20 September, deputy prime minister Tan Sri Muhyiddin Yassin announced: 'We have not approved the release of GE mosquitoes at this time.' See:

Clearly, this remains a complex issue that ultimately will be affected by public opinion. Politicians will carefully monitor the public's perception and international pressure, and if it gets too hot, will withdraw. This has nothing to do with GMOs, it is simply their position as politician that is at stake.

But what if there will be no approval?

Ole Skovmand's picture
Submitted by Ole Skovmand on

The discussion on transgenic mosquitoes as a tool is a difficult one. It may in some aspects not be different from the one of vaccine discussions, meaning that it does not take into the consideration the fabulous, scarry ability of the parasite to mutate when making the early stage trials (maybe in practise, that is difficult). It has been found that mosquitoes in general are able to kill most of the parasites (gametocytes) that enter their gut, by melanization mostly or other mechanisms. Early oocytes are also killed, only a few ever make it to pass the gutt. It is a numbers game,because they often get a lot and perhaps several serotypes in one meal. If we invent mosquitoes that are better in melanization the gametocytes that were found in the lab that worked on it, will it also work on the mix of gametocytes out there ? Are we not underestimating the number of variants ? On the other side, of course there are effective mechanisms. Anopheles gambiae and a lot others transmit the human parasites, but some close Anophles species does not and e g Culex quinquefasciatus is not known to transmit any human malaria even it bites a lot of people that have malaria.
How does that help in the GMO campaign ?
In the crowd of arguments against GMOs there are religious arguments (which does not mean that these people are religious in conventionel meaning), sensible arguments and general fear for the unknown.
The two latter groups can perhaps come into the debate by referring to something known, arguing like this:.
Anopheles mosquitos even of carrier species do kill a lot of malaria parasites, we work on improving this mechanism. It is also a disease for the mosquito -this is why the try to neutralize it - we try to induce genes that improve this mechanism, thus transferring dangerous species to simple nuisance species We know that other mosquitoes do not allow the parasite to multiply in them, we study these mechanisms and if we understand them, we try transfer to them. We cannot do classic crossbreeding between these species, that does not work,they are to remote. What we can perhaps do is to transfer or improve mechanisms that already works.
Such explanantions has to come out early and be sincere. Specialists inthe area will be able to do this better than above.
I had the experience to work with Bt before and during the time these genes were transferred to plants. I warned colleagues at Monsanto about the resistance aspect, but also about their lack of clear communication about this that especially was needed in Europe. The response was that it was not important, Europe would just have to accept US facts that it was harmless and good for the environment and the European general opinion, if negative, would not be an important point, at most a small delay in the introduction in Europe. The debate could be taken, at the introduction time if it really was necessary. I think all of us to-day knows how wrong that vision was.
So, better learn from it
Ole Skovmand