When an environmental disaster or public health crisis strikes, the public understandably wants a quick resolution. Too often, public policymakers turn to risky chemicals or technological interventions that can actually do more harm than good.
We saw that with the 2010 BP oil blowout when BP hastily doused the Gulf of Mexico with seven million liters of the toxic chemical dispersant Corexit, which not only didn’t help things as intended, it actually created new environmental and public health problems.
With news of the terrifying Zika virus splashed on every newspaper, the media is clamoring for answers and showcasing the new silver-bullet solution, the GMO mosquito, whose release into the environment is supposed to reduce mosquito populations and, as a result, reduce transmission of disease.
The company behind the GMO mosquito, Oxitec, previously marketed the insect as a tool to combat Dengue Fever, but its claims have evolved to say the insect will also combat the Zika virus. These claims remain untested and very much in question.
Many have noted the impracticality of the GMO mosquito plan, which apparently requires municipalities to manually disperse millions of insects not just once, but on a rolling basis, forever. Who is going to pay Oxitec the princely sums required of such a program? More importantly, what impact, if any, would it have on Zika transmission?
One group of scientists warned that even if the GMO mosquito can meaningfully reduce populations of the mosquito species it targets (Aedes aegypti )—and that’s a big IF—this may cause population surges of a different mosquito species, the Asian tiger, which could also transmit the disease.
In a worst-case scenario, the GMO mosquito will be totally ineffective at combatting Zika and introduce new environmental risks, as Corexit has. And like Corexit, once we release these mosquitoes into the environment, there is no way to retrieve them if we find out we’ve made a mistake.
Where Is the Safety Research Coming From?
Much of the science surrounding the GMO mosquito, not surprisingly, comes from the company selling it, which has a financial interest in presenting its products in a favorable light. Unfortunately, it’s this biased science that FDA regulators will consult as they continue to review whether the GMO mosquito is safe and effective. As we saw with GMO salmon, recently approved under the same review process, FDA’s industry-friendly approach to regulating GMOs amounts to little more than a rubber stamp on corporate promises.
Until we have a robust, independent body of science supporting the safety and effectiveness of the GMO mosquito at combatting the Zika virus, which seems a very long ways off, it is irresponsible to embark on an unprecedented, potentially very risky public-health intervention like releasing billions of GMO mosquitoes into the environment. If that’s your idea of progress and innovation, I’d advise you to read more about Corexit.
Corporate promises are simply not enough of a basis to radically re-engineer the environment with genetically modified mosquitoes.