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Jesse Kirkpatrick on factory-modified, genetically genetically mutated mosquitoes

By Buzz McClain for Fairfax County Times




A private company in Brazil is preparing to release millions of factory-modified, genetically mutated mosquitoes in the city of Piracicaba in an effort to eradicate mosquito-borne diseases.


The four-year, $1.1 million deal calls for the company Oxitec to release 10 million factory-bred mosquitoes a week into the city of 360,000.


To some, the program seems like something from science fiction, and perhaps understudied and misguided. To others, the program offers hope.


“Releasing genetically modified insects has proven to be a valid approach for controlling–or in one case eliminating­–a significant economic burden on livestock producers,” said George Mason University distinguished professor of biology Charles Bailey.


Bailey noted that sterilized male screwworm flies were released in the United States in the 1960s, a practice that continues today.


“Prior to this successful program, the screwworm fly caused considerable economic loss to all livestock producers, and had a heavy impact on wildlife populations, especially deer,” Bailey said. “We need to support the same approach to see if it will show promise for mosquito control.”


There are some misconceptions about genetically modified organisms in general, said Michael von Fricken, a professor of Global and Community Health in Mason’s College of Health and Human Services.


One of the most important parts of this process is risk communication, he said.

“As scientists we are doing a poor job of explaining the risk of this program,” he said. Many objections raised are being guided by misinformation, not science, von Fricken said.

From an environmental stance, some may think science is interfering with the ecosystem, he said, but in this case only male mosquitos of a species that carry dengue, Chikungunya, and Zika viruses are being genetically modified. Male mosquitos don’t take blood meals (bite) and therefore cannot transmit disease.


No damage is being caused to other mosquito populations because only one species is being modified, and it’s a serious vector, he said.


“You aren’t creating these monsters that are flying around in the night,” von Fricken said.

Releasing GMO mosquitos is just one method of fighting disease. This approach could end up being better than spraying insecticides, which can indiscriminately harm beneficial insects, he said.


While the Brazil release is thousands of miles from the United States, a similar program is being debated in Florida: The FDA has approved a mosquito field trial for the Florida Keys that has been met with local opposition.


Monroe County, Fla., residents face a Nov. 8 referendum on releasing transgenic mosquitoes, said Jesse Kirkpatrick, assistant director of Mason’s Institute for Philosophy and Public Policy. Though field trials with those mosquitoes have indicated there’s a low level of ecological risk, Kirkpatrick said the effects of a large-scale release are unknown.


“Meaningful consent of the local population is critical. These are the people who will be affected if anything were to go wrong, or if nothing is done. It is their friends and family and children who will suffer the consequences of dengue or Zika, or of the potential ecological harms.”

Charles Bailey is an expert on mosquito-borne viruses and is the executive director of Mason’s National Center for Biodefense and Infectious Diseases. He can be reached at cbailey2@gmu.edu or 703-993-4271.


Jesse Kirkpatrick, assistant director of Mason’s Institute for Philosophy and Public Policy, can be reached at jkirkpat@gmu.edu or 202-631-7307.


Michael von Fricken is a professor in the Department of Global and Community Health in the College of Health of Human Service. He can be reached at mvonfric@gmu.edu or 703-993-4677.


For more information, contact Buzz McClain at 703-727-0230 o

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