Mod­i­fied mosquitoes fail to beat malaria

Bri­tish com­pany ends two-year project

Edmonton Journal - - CLASSIFIED - SARAH KNAP­TON

LON­DON • Plans to use ge­net­i­cally-mod­i­fied mosquitoes to rid the world of the likes of malaria, dengue, yel­low fever and Zika have fal­tered after of­fi­cials ad­mit­ted that a ma­jor pilot project had not worked.

Ox­itec, the Bri­tish com­pany that was orig­i­nally a spinoff from Ox­ford Univer­sity, en­gi­neered a line of in­sects whose off­spring could not grow into adults, caus­ing the pop­u­la­tion to crash.

Mil­lions of the mosquitoes were re­leased at the Bri­tish Over­seas Ter­ri­tory of Grand Cay­man over the past two years, but last week Dwayne Sey­mour, the en­vi­ron­men­tal health min­is­ter, ad­mit­ted that “the scheme wasn’t get­ting the re­sults we were look­ing for” and would not be con­tin­ued, with the con­tract for­mally end­ing on Dec 31.

The Mos­quito Re­search and Con­trol Unit (MRCU) on Cay­man was con­cerned that it could put is­lan­ders at risk as it was feared that the ap­proach could make dis­eases worse by re­duc­ing im­mu­nity, as well as spread­ing an­tibi­otic-re­sis­tant bac­te­ria into the en­vi­ron­ment.

Ear­lier in the year, a free­dom of in­for­ma­tion re­quest by Ge­neWatch UK, the cam­paign group, un­cov­ered a brief­ing pa­per show­ing there had been “no sig­nif­i­cant re­duc­tion in the abun­dance of mosquitoes in the re­leased area.”

They also dis­cov­ered that the num­bers of fe­male mosquitoes that can bite and spread dis­ease had in­creased.

He­len Wal­lace, direc­tor of Ge­neWatch UK, warned that spend­ing money on new tech­nolo­gies was wast­ing money and putting lives at risk by di­vert­ing lim­ited re­sources. Lo­cals also ob­jected to the re­lease and launched le­gal pro­ceed­ings, although judges later ruled the project could go ahead.

How­ever, James Mc­Nelly, the MRCU direc­tor, said the col­lab­o­ra­tion had been pos­i­tive and that work would be con­tin­u­ing over the next few months to as­sess the ef­fi­cacy.

Mc­Nelly said: “The project has given us valu­able in­sight into how Ox­itec’s ap­proach might be in­te­grated with our con­ven­tional tools.”

Pi­lots of ge­net­i­cal­ly­mod­i­fied in­sects are con­tin­u­ing else­where.

In Septem­ber, Burk­ina Faso granted Tar­get Malaria per­mis­sion to re­lease 10,000 ster­ile male mosquitoes.

Im­pe­rial Col­lege also demon­strated this year that it could cause crashes of pop­u­la­tions of mosquitoes us­ing gene driven tech­nol­ogy.

How­ever, the Lon­don team said it would be at least five to 10 years be­fore they would con­sider re­leas­ing the in­sects into the wild.

CHRIS­TIAN PUYGRENIER / AFP / GETTY IM­AGES

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