The covert manner in which GM mosquitoes were released in Bentong calls into question the level of transparency of
the whole affair.
WITH transparency being one of the key watchwords in Prime Minister Datuk Seri Najib Tun Razak’s administration, it was heartening to note the efforts made by the National Biosafety Board (NBB) to elicit public feedback during the approval process for the Institute for Medical Research’s (IMR) application to release genetically-modified (GM) male Aedes aegypti mosquitoes in Bentong, Pahang, and Alor Gajah, Malacca.
Not only did the board open the issue up for comment and feedback from the public, but they also actively solicited opinions from environmental non-governmental organisations (NGOs) due to a slow response rate during the one-month long public consultation period last August.
However, all that effort was negated by the rather clandestine way IMR carried out the actual release last month.
It was announced on Wednesday that the institute, and its partner in the project – United Kingdom-based biotech company Oxitec Ltd, had conducted a single release of about 6,000 male GM A. aegypti mosquitoes at an uninhabited site in a forested area near Bentong on Dec 21.
This has made Malaysia the second country in the world to release these GM mosquitoes into the wild after the Cayman Islands in 2009.
The trial, which also saw the release of an equal number of unmodified male mosquitoes at the same time, was meant to study and compare the flight range and survivability of the GM mosquitoes under natural conditions against their wild counterparts.
IMR had applied for approval to conduct the limited mark-release-recapture study to the NBB last year. The male GM mosquitoes have been modified to include a gene that causes their offspring to die before reaching sexual maturity in the absence of the antibiotic tetracycline.
The idea behind this piece of genetic engineering is to lower the population of A. aegypti mosquitoes by continuously releasing the male GM mosquitoes to mate with wild female mosquitoes.
After some time, the population of these mosquitoes should decrease enough to curtail the spread of dengue fever, which is caused by a virus transmitted to humans through the bite of the female A. aegypti mosquito.
The limited study is one of a few preliminary trials necessary before the Government can decide on whether or not to use these GM mosquitoes to help control dengue.
IMR’s application, which was assessed by the board’s Genetic Modification Advisory Committee (GMAC) under the Biosafety Act 2007, was approved with terms and conditions last October.
Informing the public
While the institute has adhered to the word of the terms and conditions laid out to them by the NBB, it is arguable whether they have followed the spirit of the guidelines.
This relates in particular to the clause stating that it is mandatory for IMR to obtain consensus and approval from the inhabitants at the release sites through a public forum before releasing the mosquitoes.
An IMR scientist with the project said that as the release was only being conducted at an uninhabited site, the public forum to gain approval from the local community was not required.
GMAC head Dr Ahmad Parveez Ghulam Kadir said that the committee and IMR had agreed during discussions that for an uninhabited site, the institute had to obtain clearance from the local municipal council, and put up notices informing the public about the field trial around the release site at least two weeks before the planned release.
Fit4Life had reported on Nov 21 that the Bentong Municipal Council had given their permission for the trial to be conducted within a three-month period from mid-November.
According to Natural Resources and Environment Ministry Biosafety Department Research and Evaluation director Dr Mohamad Mohd Salleh, signboards on the release had been put up around the release site on Dec 1.
“The signs were put up on Dec 1. The release was suppose to be on Dec 15, but was postponed to Dec 21 because of the weather,” he told Fit4Life.
Non-profit Third World Network’s senior researcher (biosafety) Lim Li Ching opined that IMR had obviously decided to do the release in an uninhabited area as it would be “quite tricky” to obtain the approval of the local community.
“In their interpretation of the conditions (of the approval), they would not have to organise a public forum for the release in an uninhabited area,” she said.
“However, we think that, even if it is in an uninhabited area, the local community who live around the area have a right to know (about the release).”
Lim pointed out that although the area might not have anyone living within it, it did not mean that people do not go into the area.
According to Dr Ahmad Parveez, the uninhabited site proposed by IMR was located about half a kilometre from a road.
Further confusion was caused by media reports published earlier this month that the trial had actually been postponed, and that no new date had been set for the release as yet.
AFP reported that the postponement was due to protests by NGOs, while two local English dailies quoted Dr Mohamad and Biosafety director-general Letchumanan Ramatha respectively as saying it was because of the rainy weather.
Dr Mohamad clarified that the delay (and the reason for it) he was referring to in the earlier report was the one that had occurred in December.
He added that at that time, he could not reveal that the release had already taken place as the Biosafety Department had been instructed not to release that information to anyone for fear that people might “disturb” the release site.
However, Health Minister Datuk Seri Liow Tiong Lai said that the postponement that was referred to was actually for the phase of the trial involving an inhabited area.
He added that that phase would have involved getting the agreement of local residents, as per the conditions set out by the NBB.
However, currently, there are no plans to conduct any further releases of the GM mosquitoes.
The press release by IMR director Dr Shahnaz Murad stated: “No further release has been planned until the post-trial monitoring is completed in accordance with the Natural Resources and Environment Ministry guidelines, and the results are analysed and presented in peer-reviewed scientific journals and/or meetings.”
According to Dr Shahnaz, the trial was completed on Jan 5, and the site fogged with insecticide the following day.
She added that they would continue to monitor the site for surviving GM mosquitoes for as long as necessary, up to two months.
Lim said that the lack of transparency over the release was not good, especially considering criticisms on the same issue by international observers for the Cayman Island trials.
Most of the world only found out that the British Overseas Territory had released the male GM mosquitoes of the strain OX513A on the island when Oxitec and the island’s Mosquito Research and Control Unit (MRCU) announced the results of the suppression study they had conducted from June to October 2010 in a London press conference last November.
Many scientists and NGOs had criticised both bodies for not publicising the release beforehand, although both Oxitec and MRCU said that local residents had been informed of the trial before it was carried out. Following that, Lim said that IMR and Oxitec “should be aware of the concern and interest internationally in this trial”.
Various international NGOs have voiced their opinion on Malaysia’s intent to release the male GM mosquitoes into the wild, albeit in a limited area and in comparatively small numbers. Among them is GeneWatch UK, a non-profit organisation specialising in genetic engineering and biosafety issues.
In its 13-page report published this month, the science-based organisation offered its opinion on the risk assessment performed by GMAC on the field trial during the approval process.
While they commended GMAC for the systematic approach they followed, the organisation said that “the risk assessment process would have been more transparent had the GMAC also listed all the potential hazards it has identified and its evaluations of their likelihood, consequences and estimated overall risk”.
The report added that: “A description of the process the GMAC has used to undertake these steps (ie how it has made its evaluations) would have also increased transparency, which is an important factor in decision-making, particularly given the intense interest and debate over this new area of transgenic technology.”
Locally, various NGOs have also continued to voice their worry over the trial, despite the public consultation period organised by the NBB.
Among their reservations were the novelness and unpredictability of this relatively new technology, as well as the fact that there are other less controversial methods of preventing dengue.