By Baradan Kuppusamy
KUALA LUMPUR, Sep 17, 2010 (IPS) - Genetically modified ‘terminator’ mosquitoes are the latest
weapons that the Malaysian government wants to use against the
deadly dengue fever, but activists and environmentalists say
the public health risks of introducing a new ‘artificial’
strain of mosquito are far too high.
The government has discussed plans to release in December
male ‘terminator’ mosquitoes with ‘killer’ genes that would
lead to a reduction in the population of the Aedes mosquito,
which carries and transmits the dengue virus to humans.
Under what would be a pilot project devised by British
and Malaysian scientists, the genetically engineered male
Aedes mosquitoes would pass on – when they mate with the
wild female of the species – lethal genes that would kill
the larvae of the female.
This is supposed to lead to an eventual fall in the
number of dengue-carrying mosquitoes, especially the females
that are the ones that transmit the dengue virus.
"There are more safe and benign ways to fight dengue" than
introducing an altered species whose impact on the
environment is unknown, argues Mohamed Idris, president of
the Consumers Association of Penang, which campaigns to
protect the environment and public health.
"There are alternatives like biological controls to check
mosquito population to curb the spread of dengue
infections," Idris said in an interview. For instance, plant
extracts, oils and biological larvicides to control mosquito
population are cheaper, safer and as effective, he said.
"Releasing genetically modified (GM) mosquitoes from the
laboratories into the wild has potential for grave
consequences," Idris added, echoing public concern over the
joint undertaking of Malaysia’s Institute of Medical
Research and British biotechnology company Oxitec Ltd.
Gurmit Singh, chairman of the non-government Centre for
Environment, Technology and Development, warned: "Once you
release these GM mosquitoes into the environment, you have
no control and it can create more problems than solving
Strong sentiments against the field release of GM
mosquitoes abound as well in online chatrooms and other
social media, where discussions have been uninhibited
compared to the government-controlled mainstream media in
"It (the experiment) could unleash a Pandora’s box. It
can go out of control. Laboratory conditions cannot be
supplanted in the wild," said a popular commentator known in
the online community as ‘Flyer168’. "Can the government
guarantee the safety of its citizens?"
Health Minister Liow Tiong Lai announced earlier in
September that the experiment with GM mosquitoes at the
"clinical level" was "very successful." But he said the
government was awaiting independent reports from the Genetic
Modification Advisory Committee and the National Biosafety
Board before deciding on the field release of the
"If both the committee and the board approve the project,
the final decision would be made by the Cabinet," Liow told
‘The Star’ newspaper on Sep. 10. The ministry, which is
overseeing the project, has "very stringent" measures to
ensure public safety, he assured.
If the feedback from the two agencies is favourable, the
GM mosquitoes could be released in a remote area of central
Pahang state, health ministry sources said.
Dengue fever is commonly found in the tropics and can
cause deaths after people are bitten by female Aedes
mosquitoes, usually during the daytime. Dengue cases are
often mistaken for the usual fever, and failure to diagnose
and treat on time can lead to dengue shock syndrome, which
Public campaigns in many Asian countries call on
residents to avoid letting stagnant water ac*****ulate and to
identify early symptoms of dengue fever.
The World Health Organisation (WHO), which has identified
dengue as a major international public health concern,
estimates that there are 50 million dengue infection cases
annually, resulting in about 22,000 deaths, mostly children.
In March, U.S. National Academy of Sciences (NAS)
published a study that suggested GM mosquitoes could help
fight dengue fever. Although the Malaysian health ministry
has vouched for the benefits of the GM mosquito project and
cited international studies like those of the NAS, doubts
have persisted among locals in past attempts to introduce
For instance, an initial plan in December 2009 to release
the GM mosquitoes in Pulau Ketam island off the port city of
Port Klang, 30 kilometres south of the capital, was aborted
because of strong opposition from the 30,000 islanders,
Together with local politicians and activists, they
organised protests and wrote to the health ministry, asking
it to avoid using the island as a laboratory to test the
effectiveness of the GM mosquitoes.
"We strongly oppose this experiment," said villager Liew
Kam in a letter to the Health Ministry in October 2009.
"This experiment could expose us and our children to bigger
risks." Liew complained that the islanders were not
informed of field trials beforehand, much less consulted
about their participation in them.
Pulau Ketam councillor Tee Boon Hock said field trials
were called off soon after the islanders began their
protests and threatened to vote for the opposition if the
administration persisted with the experiment.