GM Mosquito Release in Malaysia Surprises Opponents and Scientists—Again
by Martin Enserink on 27 January 2011, 4:41 PM ENLARGE
 [image: si-skeeter.jpg]<>
Credit: James Gathany/CDC

Some 6000 transgenic mosquitoes developed to help fight dengue were released
in Malaysia on 21 December, according to a statement issued by the country's
Institute for Medical Research (IMR) in Kuala Lumpur yesterday. Just like
the first releases
ever<> of
the mosquitoes, on the Caribbean island of Grand Cayman in 2009 and 2010,
the news came as a surprise both to opponents of the insects and to
scientists who support them.

The mosquitoes were developed by Oxitec, a U.K. biotech firm that aims to
fight dengue by releasing massive numbers of "genetically sterile" male *Aedes
aegypti* mosquitoes. When wild females mate with these transgenic males,
there are no viable offspring; the hope is that, as a result, the mosquito
populations will collapse.

The news appears to have caught the Malaysian media and public by surprise;
many recent news stories reported that the study had been postponed after
intense protests. As recently as 17 January, the Consumers' Association of
Penang and Sahabat Alam Malaysia, two groups opposing the use of GM
insects, called on the National Biosafety
revoke its approval for the study. Scientists, too, were under the
impression that the work had yet to begin, says medical entomologist Bart
Knols of the University of Amsterdam. A 24 January blog
Mark Benedict, a consultant at the Centers for Disease Control and
Prevention in Atlanta who monitors the field closely, mentioned that the
Malaysian study was "planned."

Knols worries that surprises such as the releases in Grand Cayman and
Malaysia may erode public trust and provide anti-GM groups with ammunition.
The two Malaysian groups, for instance, issued a
saying they were "shocked ... we condemn the apparently secretive manner in
which the trials have been conducted." Helen Wallace of the advocacy group
GeneWatch UK says the lack of communication does little to instill
confidence in Oxitec.

Oxitec's chief scientific officer, Luke Alphey, confirms that Malaysian
media had it wrong. But Alphey says "nobody should have been terribly
surprised" by the release. Once all the regulatory hurdles had been
overcome, "it seems predictable that the next step would be the actual
release," he says. Oxitec did not announce the news itself because that
wasn't the company's role, says Alphey: "This was a study by the Malaysian
government done in Malaysia. It was up to them to announce it."

Carried out in a remote area of Bentong, a district in the central state of
Pahang, the study was designed to test transgenic males' survival and
mobility, Alphey says. Some 6000 wild-type males, as well as controls, were
released. The study ended on 5 January, after which insecticides were
sprayed to kill any remaining mosquitoes, says IMR.

Wallace believes Oxitec is rushing ahead with field trials because it needs
to start making money. In a recently posted
GeneWatch UK claimed that the company is losing some £1.7 million ($2.7
million) per year and needs to pay back a £2.25 million ($3.6 million) loan
by 2013. But Alphey says that's not the reason. "We are a for-profit company
and finance is not irrelevant," he says. "But anyone who realizes that there
are 50 to 100 million cases of dengue every year would feel a sense of

The study carried out in Grand Cayman last summer was much bigger. There,
some 3 million mosquitoes were released to test whether they could actually
help bring down the local population. A paper describing the results—an 80%
decrease in mosquito numbers—has been submitted to *Science*, Alphey says.

Michael Balter
Contributing Correspondent, Science
Adjunct Professor of Journalism,
New York University

Email:  [log in to unmask]

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