An extraordinary press release issued by a key Brazilian regulatory agency shows that the country’s authorities have failed to understand even the basics of the GM mosquito control technology that is currently in limbo waiting for their approval in advance of desperately-needed wide-scale deployment to combat Zika and dengue diseases.
As I wrote on this blog nearly a month ago, Oxitec’s GM mosquito control technology is being held up in Brazilian red tape: a national agency called Anvisa – Brazil’s official health surveillance regulator – has been sitting on its hands for two years, apparently unable to make a decision on the labelling of GM mosquito products.
Now a press release issued by Anvisa shows that the Brazilians – incredibly – don’t even get the basics of what they’re trying to make a decision about. The Portuguese original is here, English language translation (thankyou Google) is below:
“Anvisa was consulted by Oxitec company on the need for approval by the Agency of the genetically modified organism (GMO) of OX513A strain of Aedes aegypti, the so-called transgenic mosquito. This is an innovative technology and different from all other products and activities regulated so far by the body.
The biological control technique applied by the company is to produce male sterile by ionizing radiation. These males are released in high local incidence of wild populations, with the expectation that wild females copulation with sterile males and do not produce offspring.”
Wrong! The highlit sentence above is completely and utterly incorrect. Oxitec’s male mosquitoes have been genetically engineered to carry a lethal gene that prevents subsequent offspring from surviving to maturity. This is very different from male sterility caused by irradiation, a much older technology which has been used in both mosquito and other pest insects in different parts of the world for decades.
Now… I have come across many different breeds of bungling bureaucrats in my time. But this really does take the prize: even as the World Health Organisation declares a global emergency for Zika, the Brazilian bureaucrats in charge of allowing a promising mosquito control strategy to go ahead don’t even know what they are looking at. This basic error would be embarrassing to a high-school student, let alone a national authority faced with a global health emergency.
But let’s be generous. Perhaps Anvisa is getting confused because the IAEA has just announced that it “will facilitate the transfer of a gamma cell irradiator to Brazil to help the country’s battle with the Zika virus” via the creation of old-style irradiated male-sterile mosquitos. But the IAEA press release only came out yesterday, while the Anvisa release was published on 19 February. Or perhaps someone from Anvisa’s media team needs to go back to school – but shouldn’t the bosses, who no doubt review all press materials, at least have noticed?
It is odd that the Brazilians are apparently more keen on releasing irradiated mosquitoes than GM ones. I and others have noted with concern how there has been a proliferation in conspiracy theories promulgated by the anti-GMO lobby regarding Oxitec’s technology. However, no-one is writing scare stories about irradiated ‘Godzilla mozzies’ so far as I know – perhaps social psychologists can tell us why some technologies evoke fear while others don’t. Or perhaps we just need the usual anti-science suspects to snap into action.
Personally I would support the widespread deployment of both approaches, along with conventional strategies involving pesticides and physical mosquito breeding prevention measures. But it is important to understand that the irradiation approach is likely to be less effective: irradiated males, having been genetically battered by intense bursts of gamma radiation, tend to be less fit in other ways and are less successful in mating with wild females than healthy wild males. In contrast, the GM male-sterile mosquitoes are phenotypically identical to wild males, so a higher success rate in mosquito control can be expected.
It also bears repeating that Brazil’s delay is not for any environmental or scientific concerns – full biosafety consent was given by the relevant authority CTNBio in April 2014 – this is procedural issue. Moreover, Oxitec has found in trial releases in the Brazilian city of Piracicaba that the targeted mosquito population of the disease-carrying Aedes aegypti species was reduced by over 90% – making this a more effective control strategy by far than insecticides, and likely better than irradiated male-sterile techniques also.
No-one from Oxitec wanted to comment when I asked, but I expect that the word ‘frustrated’ would be putting it too mildly. Being asked to wait by competent national regulatory authorities making predictable, science-based decisions is one thing. Being held up for two years by incompetent morons is quite another – especially as millions more may catch Zika and dengue as a result.
Zika is now an internationally health emergency. I can only hope that the WHO and other international agencies come down hard on Brazil – and quickly – to try to sort this mess out before too much more damage is done.