Zika. The four letter word is sending fear through many and is being used as an excuse for dramatic steps to combat it. One of the most dramatic proposals is to introduce genetically engineered mosquitoes into the environment to kill off the mosquito that spreads Zika, Dengue, Chikungunya and Yellow Fever. These genetically engineered mosquitoes are an example of a GMO’s (Genetically Modified Organisms) being used to alter nature. Last week the FDA signed off on the safety of a GMO mosquito by the British Company Oxitec to be used in an experiment in a small Key West Neighborhood called Key Haven. Many Key West residents are concerned that the GMO mosquito could have substantial negative impact on them and the environment. Dr. McKalip*, founder of the Sunbeam Times blog, has begun a scientific evaluation of the Oxitec GMO mosquito and provides and evaluation of the risks and benefits. This accompanies the evaluation of the inconclusive data so far regarding the link of Zika to microcephaly.
As a researcher with firsthand experience at genetic modification of cellular tissue*, Dr. McKalip evaluated the FDA report issued that gave clearance to the proposed Mosquito experiment. This was done in the context of the very biased (pro-GMO) report by Tampa Bay Times on Sunday 8/7 that painted the Key West Citizens who were opposed to the GMO mosquito experiment as ignorant and needlessly reactionary. The same Times report portrayed the Oxitec scientist as committed and tearfully worried (on a posted video) about the lost and damaged lives that would ensue if his corporation was not allowed to save the world with his mosquitoes.
The GMO mosquito and the Experiment on Key West
Residents of Key Haven, the small community at the start of Key West, are fighting against the Oxitec Mosquitoes. The city has agreed to a non-binding referendum in November on whether to proceed with the experiment that would put the OX513A mosquitoes into the neighborhood on Key Haven. According the Tampa Bay Times three of the five member Florida Keys Mosquito control Board (FKMCB) have agreed to abide by the referendum results. The FDA has approved the corporate experiment but the local government has to agree (demonstrating the reason why we don’t allow complete federal control of our lives). The plan is to release at least 14 million GMO mosquitoes over two years into the neighborhood. Understandably this has raised alarm.
The OX513A mosquitoes have been modified so that when mating occurs, the offspring will die quickly. Similar experiments have been conducted in Malaysia, Brazil and the Cayman Islands, meaning that biologically and ecologically the “cat is out of the bag”. The goal is to release only male mosquitoes since they do not bite to feed off blood and grow eggs as do the females. However a review of the FDA report and background science reveals that a small percentage of the released GMO mosquitoes (about 0.2%) are females (FDA report section 9.2.2). That means they can breed with native mosquitoes and lay eggs and also bite humans upon release during their life cycle of about two to four weeks. When the GMO mosquitoes breed with the natural, or wild type (WT) mosquito, they create a GMO/WT hybrid mosquito. While the GMO/WT mosquitoes are supposed to die quickly, laboratory studies have shown that 20% of the offspring mosquitoes can live for weeks and can engage in at least two blood feedings (appendix F of FDA report). That means that the local residents can be bitten by GMO mosquitoes and their blood can be used to breed new GMO mosquitoes.
The Risks of GMO mosquitos to the Citizens and the Planet
There are many things that can go wrong by introducing GMO mosquitoes designed to breed with natural mosquitoes and cause a mass die off. A partial list includes the following:
Risk: The OX513A bugs could establish a new subspecies and actually survive in nature.
Implications: The FDA thinks the risk of this is low, but bases their conclusions on some assumptions that are not entirely accurate. However if the survival rate, percentage of females released or genetic assumptions are wrong, then the GMO mosquito could establish itself permanently. This concern will be evaluated in this Sunbeam Times series.
Risk: The GMO mosquitoes could mutate, leading to unintended changes in the mosquito population that could cause unknown harms. There could be mutations in other mosquitoes as well.
Implications: The FDA believe this chance of this is low, but they could be wrong. Mosquitoes breed rapidly with life cycles of about two weeks from egg to adult and the ability to expand the population rapidly. This creates far greater opportunity for mutations. The mutations could lead to mosquitoes that are more likely to carry disease, or survive better in colder conditions or even cause genetic mutations in organisms they bite. These are all theoretical, but even over a few years, these mutations can occur if they will occur. This concern will be evaluated in this Sunbeam Times series.
Risk: That OX513A mosquitoes could cause a massive die off of more mosquitoes than anticipated.
Implications: Mosquitoes do play a role in nature that is both beneficial and detrimental. They supply food to fish and aquatic species as eggs, larvae and pupae while in the water. As adults they feed bats, birds, dragonflies and more. A massive mosquito die off could cause break in natural ecosystems. If other populations lose important food sources, the reverberations could be substantial in nature and for man. This concern will be evaluated in this Sunbeam Times series.
Risk: The GMO mosquitos could directly harm man or animals they bite due to their genetic modification.
Implication: The FDA believes this is extremely unlikely and this Sunbeam Times analysis tends to agree. However the biological potential for this problem does exist. This concern will be evaluated in this Sunbeam Times series.
There are many concerns that must be addressed and this evaluation should also be done in the context of available alternatives. In addition, the profit motive of the company proposing release of the GMO mosquito must be evaluated – especially since it is operating outside of a true free market, and is vying for government money and approvals. Consumers would be unlikely to ask for such a solution as opposition in Key West reveals now.
In medicine, doctors take an oath to “First, do no harm”. However, in public health endeavors, there is no oath to do no harm. Democrats, liberals and environmentalists like to claim that man is causing global warming and advocate massive government intervention to change that. This is despite the clear evidence that man is not causing global warming or climate change. However the man-made ecological change proposed with GMO mosquitoes is clear, profound and undeniable. Yet liberal newspapers like the Times, government agencies and global groups like the UN seem to be pushing the GMO mosquito into the environment.
Certainly, as Americans and as people who want to preserve nature, there is every reason to be very skeptical of this man-made, GMO mosquito intrusion into nature. Nature evolved over millions of years and man – in his arrogance – should not think he can be smarter than nature or God in adjusting it. The hubris of man in trying to tweak the genome for his interest and short circuit nature could very well be the undoing of nature and man if we are wrong. Stay tuned to the Sunbeam Times for further analysis on the GMO Oxitec Mosquito and the Zika issue.
*Dr. McKalip is a private practice neurological surgeon with firsthand experience in genetically engineering. While a researcher and academic neurosurgeon, he ran a laboratory that created viruses to alter the DNA of brain and spinal cord cells to produce proteins to promote regrowth of neurons after spinal cord injury. Dr. McKalip was awarded an NIH grant to pursue this research. Dr. McKalip is also a clinical researcher familiar with the science of clinical trials and statistical analysis of results.