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Forward-looking FriendlyTM mozzies to beat malaria

August 2018

Earlier this year, the World Health Organisation (WHO) declared Paraguay officially free of malaria after zero recorded cases in five years. Algeria, Argentina and Uzbekistan are on track to be declared malaria-free later this year.

As the head of the WHO said, the importance of this success story is that it shows what is possible: "If malaria can be eliminated in one country, it can be eliminated in all countries".

The problem with malaria is that, although it can be eliminated locally by wiping out the mosquitoes which harbour it and treating its victims so they don't pass the disease on, the mozzies and their parasites will always come back. Human beings will visit malarial regions and return with infections, mosquitoes will fly in from neighbouring infected areas, and both the flies and the parasites will evolve resistance to the chemicals designed to kill them. All this means you have to keep on the case.
Sadly, Venezuela where the disease was almost wiped out between the 1960s and 1980s, is now facing an escalating malarial crisis. It seems political and economic mismanagement are driving poverty and all the social upheaval which goes with it: worker and population movement ( 37,000 people are reported to cross the border daily), shortages of chemicals, manpower and equipment for controlling the disease, and a collapse of the health system. Sanctions imposed by the US, Canada and the EU are being blamed for the country's inability to pay for the import of vital food and medicines. Further fuelling the problem is a government which doesn't want to admit the Chávez revolution has failed, and there's a lack of vital data from the worst-hit areas which are controlled by the military. Because individuals re-infected with malaria are not counted as new cases, the scale of the outbreak is being under-stated.

The next chapter of this story promises to be Oxitec branded FriendlyTM mosquitoes for "global malaria vector control efforts".

Oxitec* has taken a while to move on from its "self-limiting" Zika- and Dengue-busting GM mozzies to the mosquito species which transmits malaria. Apparently, Oxitec's enthusiasm for "continued innovation of new and transformational interventions ... critical to realising the goal of a world free of malaria" has been fueled by a recent "cooperative agreement" with the very wealthy Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation.

The FriendlyTM mosquito technology involves flooding the affected area with GM males of the appropriate species. The males do not bite and do not transmit disease, but they do mate with wild females and their offspring inherit a self-limiting gene that causes either all progeny or specifically the female progeny to die before reaching adulthood. Besides being doomed, FriendlyTM mosquito offspring inherit a fluorescent marker gene that allows tracking and monitoring at a level never before achieved, making the assessment of effectiveness easier and more accurate.

Oxitec anticipates that its FriendlyTM GM mozzies will "dramatically reduce wild population". It points out its "proven track record" with the first-generation FriendlyTM GM mosquitoes studied by independent researchers and governments around the world, plus the approvals and endorsements granted by a range of national and international bodies.

This is all very impressive, until you reach the "Safe Harbor Statement"* at the end of the press release. This tells you: "Some of the statements made in this press release are forward-looking statements ... based upon our current expectations and projections about future events ... Although management believes that the plans and objectives reflected in or suggested by these forward-looking statements are reasonable ... actual future results may be materially different from the plans, objectives and expectations expressed in this press release."

GeneWatch and others* would give Oxitec an argument with regard to its "proven" track record, approvals and endorsements.

*Serious doubts have been raised by the Cayman Islands' Mosquito Research and Control Unit, and by Brazilian scientists who have analysed Oxitec's data, and also by the Company's failure to publish the results of all its GM mosquito releases.

America (very wealthy and home of Intrexon and the Gates Foundation) hasn't embraced the GM mosquito solution. A proposed trial in Florida collapsed because US regulators hadn't done their job properly, and the local residents would have none of it [1].

Oxitec's assurance that the World Health Organisation Vector Control Advisory Group has recommended pilot projects using GM mosquitoes comes without the Group's qualification that "concrete epidemiological evidence of their effectiveness, sustainability, and impact on the environment and nontarget species is lacking; no reliable ecological evidence on the potential interactions among GM (mosquitoes), target populations and other mosquito species exists ..."

Brief trial releases of GM mozzies in Malaysia and Panama were abandoned due to lack of practicality and high cost.

Cayman Islands scientists questioned why the cost of GM mosquito releases (which involve building a factory to produce the insects) is nearly a hundred times more there than in Brazil.

It seems that releases of the GM insects have to be repeated indefinitely (hence the need to build factories) with an attached indefinite cost. Also the technology isn't a stand-alone one, other anti-mozzie tactics have to be ongoing at the same time, adding further costs. And, since FriendlyTM mosquitoes come in single-species varieties, if there's more than one kind of disease-vector in the area or a new one moves into the space created by the removal of the old, you're back to square one.

This is an excellent business plan, ensuring limitless and eternal future markets.

Information released by Oxitec claim a reduction in mosquitoes of more than 90% in trials in Brazil, and such announcements have likely influenced decisions by public agencies and private investors as well as members of the public living in the test area. However, there are worrying signs that the data collection was adjusted to 'prove' what Oxitec wanted. For example, no baseline measurements were taken before the trial started, so no one knows what the starting mosquito/malaria situation was; the comparative 'control' area was adjacent to the test area and within reach of migrant mozzies; often egg-trap readings were used as a (very questionable) proxy for the numbers of females; mid-experiment changes were made in trap-positions, in the size of the release site, and in the time-frame for the experiment all of which could shift the outcome to maximise the apparent effectiveness of the releases.

Questions were also raised as to the reliability of the technique for identifying GM mosquitoes by their fluorescence.

Readings of the most relevant disease transmission factor, the numbers of biting adult female mosquitoes, seem to have been avoided. However where measurements were made independently, the numbers of females was found to have increased. This suggests significant contamination of the male GM mosquitoes by GM females and raises concerns about the reliability of the production process.

Last but not least, no reduction in disease has been recorded in trial areas. Claimed success attributable to GM mosquito release is a "forward looking statement".


OUR COMMENT


What stands out here is that GM FriendlyTM mosquitoes are irrelevant to Paraguay and probably to Argentina, Algeria and Uzbekistan too: these areas have managed mozzie-free status just fine without adding the expense of GM into the equation. For the vast majority of countries with a major mosquito problem, such as Venezuela, the Oxitec 'solution' is irrelevant: they are too poor, too disorganised and too corrupt to consider using GM mosquitoes no matter how FriendlyTM they might forward-lookingly be.

Background:

[1] FLORIDA GM MOSQUITOES WILL NOT BE RELEASED - January 2017

 * Oxitec is a spinout company from Oxford University. It's now a subsidiary of Intrexon, a US company which "is Powering the Bioindustrial Revolution with Better DNA" to help solve some of the world's biggest problems.

 *A safe harbor statement or forward-looking statement is a statement that cannot sustain itself as merely a historical fact. It predicts, projects, or uses future events as expectations or possibilities. These statements can often be misleading as they can be mistaken for fact whereas they are actually speculation.


SOURCES:
  • Oxitec's GM insects: Failed in the field? GM Watch Briefing, May 2018
  • Peter Beaumont, Malaria rates soar in Venezuela - a nation that had nearly wiped it out, Guardian 21.05.18
  • Reuters, Paraguay declared free of malaria by WHO, Guardian 11.06.18
  • Oxitec to Apply New Generation of Self-Limiting mosquito Technology to Malaria-Spreading Mosquitoes, Oxitec press release, www.oxitec.com 19.06.18

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