With the spectacular success of the odd-even formula introduced by the AAP government in Delhi, one is forced to ponder upon other such initiatives proposed by the ruling party. Pepped up by a Chinese proposal, the government, since October 2015, has been pondering upon a new idea of using genetically modified mosquitoes to tackle the dengue epidemic which has often made headlines due to the number of lives it claims in Delhi alone. Take into account the facts that it causes more human mortality than any other vector-borne viral disease, is responsible for approximately 25,000 deaths a year, has no cure yet, even the preventive measures are difficult to implement as the mosquitoes have evolved resistance to four of the six pesticides being used against them, and one can clearly see that it is in people’s interest to take steps to curb the spread of the dengue virus. As quoted in the Indian Journal of Dermatology by 2010, this virus was an endemic in 112 countries with 40% of the world’s population at risk.
Now the question arises as to how the whole process of using GMOs works. A species of mosquitoes known as Aedes aegypti, found between 15˚N and 15˚S latitude, works as the carrier for various viruses including dengue, chikungunya and yellow fever, but only the females are responsible for spreading these diseases. The process being proposed involves genetic engineering of sterile insects by introducing two genes into male eggs, whereby one acts as a lethal gene while the other is used as a marker to identify the modified ones. Upon maturity when these males are released and when they mate with the females, the eggs produced die due to the dominant lethal gene and lack of the antibiotic tetracycline which is necessary for their survival.
To test the efficiency of GMOs and to analyse the risks, trials were conducted in Brazil and the Cayman Islands. In the Cayman Islands, seventy Malaysian scientists conducted the trials as a part of a UNDP-sponsored workshop and concluded that the release of these genetically modified mosquitoes will have a negligible negative impact on human health or the environment. It was stated that the approach is sustainable over time and resulted in 90% reduction in the population of targeted species. This process is economical too since breeding these mosquitoes is easy with minor transportation costs and long-lasting effects. Thus, this it gained widespread support particularly from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation in form of investments of US$ 38 million in the research.
Originally developed by Professor Luke Alphey of the Department of Zoology at Oxford University, who started a commercial company, Oxitec, to market his creation, this technology was tested further by Maharashtra-based private company Gangabishan Bhikulal Investment and Trading Ltd, or GBIT, who have been conducting controlled laboratory experiments to test its effectiveness and have recently got the permission to carry out field experiments in isolated spaces containing female wild mosquitoes.
But then certain risks are inherent in the process since releasing of the dengue-spreading species in the ecosystem makes people flinch and demand ample evidence about reliability of the process which is not yet available. Another fear is that these mosquitoes may be more resistant to insecticides and these traits may be transferred by them to the wild population, though these have been tested against currently used insecticides and were found to be equally prone. Also, there are risks of alteration of food chain due to removal of a species but then none of the species are solely dependent on a single variety of mosquitoes and they may feed on others species of mosquitoes available as this process targets only Aedes aegypti. It has also been said that these concerns are somewhat irrelevant as the GMOs released for a limited duration will not be able to establish in the ecosystem thus posing negligible pathogenic or ecological risks. It was, in fact, found that these mosquitoes lack mating competitiveness when compared with the wild males which needs to be overcome with further experimentation.
Even if these obstacles are removed, there are many pitfalls for the AAP. One can easily recount the issues of GM cotton and brinjal, the protests held and the opposition faced. People are not going to trust the government blindly, and we’ve already had a BJP minister in Madhya Pradesh refer to inserting animal genes in plants as a sin, for which farmers were punished by God by way of heavy rains! (However, the BJP government of Gujarat has funded much biotechnology research, and yes, biotechnology is as unnatural as the gadgets we use in our everyday lives, and many of our food items like strawberries come from vegetative reproduction, a rudimentary form of cloning!) The AAP may have to cross many hurdles for the acceptance of the proposal. They will have to face some major challenges politically and bureaucratically. Then there are the required clearances for such experiments which will take a lot of time. For example, in Malaysia, it took more than three years for the approval to conduct the process. If the results come out against the government, then it will have to be ready to face the criticism from the opposition parties and the public and so, implementation will be nothing less than walking a tightrope. Probably keeping these in mind and not wanting to dig its own grave, the AAP is being cautious and has decided to send a team to China’s Guangzhou province to analyse the risks and success of the plan at the ground level. On the other hand, a decision was taken to constitute a team for detailed discussions and deliberations in deciding different courses of action. Meanwhile talks are being held with scientists across the world to find a safe and optimal solution.
Such an interference with the ecosystems is highly disapproved by critics. Reducing the population of one mosquito species may increase the population of other mosquitoes thus worsening the situation. Also according to Genewatch, 3% of the offspring do survive to adulthood and there are chances that these percentages could increase as they become more resistant. It also states that according to Oxitec, the company creating the GMOs, 200 biting females are released for every million males. Then there’s the statement by the company – “It has been suggested that, in countries with very high transmission rates, reduction in transmission could increase the severity of disease while reducing the incidence”. In light of these revelations it would be better if the AAP takes baby steps towards the whole plan.
Trials should be conducted prior to implementation as effects may vary from region to region. Locals subjected to such process must be asked for their fully informed consent before the beginning of trials. Instead of hiding the truth from the people they must be made aware of the pros and cons present in the experiment and should have a right to voice their opinion. Also, people need to know whom to hold liable for any of the problems they might face. The AAP, claiming to hold the banner of transparency and accountability high, should and hopefully will take these dimensions in account.
Nobody can assertively predict the future of such experiments with profound certainty, there are always more trials to be conducted and data to be collected, then also these statistics with reliable figures may produce unreliable facts but while seeking for the elimination of the disease, we need to be very careful.
(Image Courtesy: Wikimedia Commons)