Bungling Brazilians fail to understand basics of Zika GM mosquito control technology they want to regulate

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.


  1. Clyde Davies

    I now expect a whole shitload of comments by certain people who don’t know what they’re talking about either. A match made in heaven.

  2. Mary Mangan

    Oh, man, that’s tragic. Really tragic, as in people who might be safer from several viral scenarios will be harmed by the delay and confusion.

    I was just reading today about how pleased the test city was and how they wanted to expand their program. Dengue is way down.


  3. Bluebell

    Maybe Brazil has stricter controls than America/Britain, and that is their prerogative. Better to be sure than sorry.

    1. Clyde Davies

      What, as sorry as the parent of a microcephalic child? I’ll bet they’re *delighted* that the clueless Brazilian authorities are erring on the side of caution.

      It’s incredibly easy for people like you to come out with pious analyses, especially when the problem is and will remain thousands of miles from home.

    2. Bluebell

      Back to your usual rudeness again, I see. Makes no sense in bad-mouthing the Brazilians, just because they want further investigation, that shows they want what is best for the people and won’t be bullied by American/British Corps.

    3. Clyde Davies

      Yeah, back to my usual rudeness. I’m not a very nice person. Get over it.

      This has fuck all to do with being ‘bullied by American/British Corps’ and everything to do with what’s best for the Brazilians. The Oxitec technology is incredibly effective at wiping out mosquitoes.

      Seeing as though you seem to think you know what’s best for the Brazilians, perhaps you’d care to give us the benefit of your superior insight by sharing your views on how better the Zika scourge can be defeated, given that there are no drugs or vaccines available?

  4. John Fryer

    This article is only loosely connected with the verity.

    It implies that GMO technology will cure the ZIKA menace that has arrived in Anerica.

    In fact the ZIKA menace was unknown until millions of GMO insects were released in Brazil.

    It has to proved why ZIKA arrived but it is obvious the Brazilian government know enough to be wary of using GMOD methods using imported mosquitoes.

    If the company can’t guarantee there won’t be mosquitoes of the wrong sex it seems unlikely they can be sure they didn’t import the ZIKA on their GMO insects aurely?

    The Brazilian government do know the difference between GMO technology and alternative technologies proven to reduce the mosquito population and the article does not give them enough credit for understanding the issues involved.

    Every new GMO technique has been associated with subsequent catastrophe and subsequent denial of a link.

    GMO technology invariably uses viral fragments and in this case HERPES virus and the làbile products are in the hands of chance as to what happens afterwards.

    Whether or not GMO is to blame for what is happening may never be proven but the consequences will last for a very long time.

    It is interesting even workers in the field are beginning to question GMO technology even when the benefits seem plain.

    1. Clyde Davies

      “In fact the ZIKA menace was unknown until millions of GMO insects were released in Brazil”

      You really are a complete idiot, aren’t you? Have you *read* what Mark has written about this GMO mosquito scare? And how he demolishes the antis arguments?

      I doubt it, because I am firmly of the opinion that you have written far more about this and related subjects than you have ever read. Not a commendation, in my book.

  5. John Fryer

    Interesting Oxitech won’t comment but then words are put in their mouth implying their technology is fine.

    In fact catastrophe only happened after use of their insects.

    Maybe they are just honest enough not to deny they have caused harm but hope nobody will challenge them to explain about their source and controls to check no ZIKA virus on board?

    Waiting for the shot to hit the fan?


    Not digging a hole when you are in it?

    Let’s stick to the facts and surely people are allowed to ask sensible questions and demand honest answers.

    Oxitech may be 100 per cent in the clear but if they are why do they keep quiet?

    A lawyer will always tell you to never admit guilt.

    GMO technology can and does work but it seems we have miles to go yet!

    1. Clyde Davies

      Here you go, Moron, a nice website explaining why you are talking total bullshit:

      http://blogs.discovermagazine.com/science-sushi/2016/01/31/genetically-modified-mosquitoes-didnt-start-zika-ourbreak/#.VtAlpObJLSE .

      The gene inserted into the GMO mosquitoes is double stranded DNA. It can’t actually cross over into Zika because this is AN RNA VIRUS. Got that, stupid?

  6. John Fryer

    The author here fails to mention the ZIKA issue is now no longer a Brazil problem but a world wide problem.

    No ZIKA until May 2015 and now endemic to 22 countries inside ten months is quite an achievement we don’t want and means there are 21 countries needing a GMO or alternative method to fight this disease.

    USA too will be next to be hit so will USA use the GMO method?

    Reports already seek of ZIKA victims in USA but not yet from infection in USA.

    We need to know much more about this illness and why it is possible even for people to buy it with no public knowledge of gets it and for what reason.

    Has it been used in any biowarfare units acting as agents for the USA say in countries like Liberia or Ukraine etc?

  7. John Fryer

    Bungling Brazilians or maybe Bungled GMO technology?

  8. John Fryer

    Mark once claimed to be against GMO technology but now seems to fail to see there can be any harm from it even when as here it is clear SOMETHING has gone wrong.

    I don’t think with this kind of journalism Oxitech would be blamed by him even if they admitted MEA CULPABLE.

    1. Clyde Davies

      Just because you keep on making the same reidiculous claim time and time again doesn’t mean that we’re going to take you any more seriously you know.

      I think you’ve convinced us all that you’re not very bright and really don’t understand the issues. You can stop now.

  9. John Fryer

    The whole tone of this article actually offends me .

    Mark talks of coming down hard on the Brazilian govt!

    For goodness sake this is in 21 other countries who are also doing not even what Brazil was prepared to do.

    Do we come down harder on Colombia, on Venezuela, on and on and on.

    No mention about coming down hard on finding the facts and who or what is to blame but just GMO isn’t to blame because it had been approved safe.

    Seems to me the people who approved the safety of the technique need someone to come down hard on them too.

    1. Dominick Dickerson

      Lynas fairly comes down on Brazil because it’s Brazil that has been working with oxitec for years to conduct field trials for OX513a. Not Colombia, not Venezuela. And it’s not even all of Brazilian government, it’s only Anvisa dragging its feet. The mosquitos can be released and they currently are however without Anvisa’s decision on labeling they can’t be sold commercially. So in the municipalities that are working with Oxitec they are making “research donations” in exchancpge for oxitecs support. All Anvisa’s stonewalling is accomplishing is delaying the only proven vector control solution witha verified working technology that doesn’t rely on the heavy application of insecticides.

      Oxitec has been in Brazil since atleast 2010. They’ve already done 2 successful field tests in two areas and are expanding their facilities. That Anvisa doesn’t even seem to know the technology their supposed to be making regulatory decisions on is a testament to their incompetence. Much more likely antibiotech interests have the ear of someone in Anvisa.

    2. Clyde Davies

      I find the fact that somebody as ignorant as you feels you have a right to comment about this even more offensive. It makes me wish the WWW had never been invented.

      But the moronic genie is well and truly out of that bottle. And moronic it certainly is. I mean, only a moron would claim GMO mosquitoes caused a plague 400 miles away from where they were released, wouldn’t he? Or that mosquitoes released four years earlier could have somehow caused an outbreak in 2015?

      There are people who don’t understand the technology but hate it enough to originate lies about it. They’re not especially stupid. It’s the people who swallow those lies hook line and sinker that are the obdurately dense, stupid to the point of being insufferable.

  10. Paulo Andrade

    Wrong, Bluebell. Brazil has essentially the same regulatory framework (as long as strictness is concerned) as USA or GB. The Brazilian GMO biosafety agency has approved the commercial release of this mosquito two years ago! But the product must be registered somewhere in the enforcing agencies. ANVISA is in charge of that, and it is dragging its foot for the last 18 months…

  11. Joanne Cox

    Now that we have all had time to reflect, isn’t it about time to wonder why there are over 1,900 cases of Zika-related microcephaly births in Brazil; but, in comparison, there have been 61 cases of microcephaly births in Columbia out of 19,000 Zika-infected pregnant women.

    With the controversy of GMMs, why not use the Wolbachia alternative which does the same thing but is not GM and achieves the same level of suppression result.

    1. Clyde Davies

      So what you seem to be implying is that it has been perfectly acceptable to endure the toll of misery if Zika while waiting for a non-GM alternative to be developed.

      I happen to think we should sling everything we have at it. I think that first world priorities should be treated with the contempt they deserve.

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