January 4, 2011

Modified Mosquito Trial To Combat Dengue Fever Delayed

An official said on Tuesday that Malaysia has delayed a landmark field trial to release genetically modified mosquitoes designed to combat dengue fever.

The 4,000 to 6,000 male Aedes aegypti mosquitoes were originally scheduled to be released last month in an attempt to fight dengue, which killed at least 134 people last year in Malaysia alone.

The insects have been engineered so that their offspring quickly die, curbing the growth of the population in a technique researchers hope could eventually eradicate the dengue mosquito altogether.  The female gender of the species is responsible for spreading dengue.

However, the trial prompted widespread concern among environmental groups, which asked the government to call off the tests, saying that the GM mosquito could fail to prevent dengue and have unintended consequences.

A senior official from the Biosafety Department told AFP that the trial has been postponed pending further discussion with residents in the trial areas.  The trial was to be carried out in two Malaysian states.

"There are a lot of protests. We are now aiming to carry out the trial in the first half of 2011," Mohamed Mohamad Salleh, the department's director of research and evaluation, told AFP.

"The (health authorities) must get approval from the residents in those areas where the residents will be affected. If it is uninhabited site, approval must be granted by state government officers," he said.

Mohamed said that public forums will be held to explain the trial.  The Environment Ministry said it received over 30 responses from local and international groups on the controversial trial.

There were 22 non-government organizations on public health and the environment that wrote an open letter to the government asking it to cancel the trial and "instead invest in safer approaches to addressing dengue."

"While dengue is a very serious problem in Malaysia and needs to be urgently addressed, going down the GM path takes us into risky territory. Genetic engineering often results in unintended effects," the letter said.

"We do not know enough about the GM mosquitoes and how their interactions with non-GM mosquitoes in the wild, other species in the ecosystem, the dengue virus and human populations, will be affected."

Authorities said that the trial would be harmless as the GM mosquitoes could only live for a few days.

Dengue infection leads to a sudden onset of fever with severe headaches, muscle and joint pains, and rashes, which then leads to death if untreated.

Image Courtesy Muhammad Mahdi Karim/Wikipedia