31 May 2009, Colombo, Sri Lanka: Genetically modified (GM) mosquitoes may have been released in the Greater Colombo area this year and can wreak havoc on public health, scientists and activists warn.
These mosquitoes are larger in size, and far more resistant to insecticides and other repellents. â€œThey will not be deterred by mosquito spray or coils â€“ in fact, these methods will have no effect on these new breeds,” a top entomologist, who did not wish to be named, said.
It was not immediately clear as to what species of mosquito has been genetically modified to make them withstand eradication measures. This news comes in the wake of a losing battle that local governments and health authorities have been waging against mosquito-borne diseases in recent years. In particular, the number of dengue hemorrhagic fever (DHF) cases has been on the rise, with a particular increase during monsoonal periods from May to September each year.
Many residents in Kotte, Battaramulla, Piliyandala and Wattala have reported the appearance of extra-large mosquitoes in recent weeks. â€œI have been amazed at how large they are,” said one concerned housewife in Jayanthipura, Battaramulla. â€œI have never seen such large mosquitoes in my life.”
Environmental groups, meanwhile, allege that the GM mosquitoes were released by a multinational drug company that failed to win a multi-million dollar contract from the government of Sri Lanka.
Independent health professionals urged that the matter be investigated immediately. Dr Madhura Rathuvitarana, a retired director general of health and former researcher on mosquito-borne diseases, said that this could be a turning point in our continuing war against the mosquito menace. â€œWe were already losing the battle with ordinary mosquitoes, and running out of effective drugs and insecticides. If the GM mosquitoes are stronger than other species, the situation is going to be very grim indeed.”
The Green Hornets, an environmental investigative organisation, claimed yesterday that the release of GM mosquitoes was done by a leading multinational company engaged in the pharmaceutical business. The company had for years been supplying anti-malarial drugs and mosquito spray to the Ministry of Health and Nutrition. The contract, running into several million dollars, was a drain on Sri Lanka’s scarce public health funds since the drugs were increasingly ineffective as the disease-causing parasites developed resistance.
â€œOur information is that this company wanted this contract to continue, and were outraged when the Ministry stopped it,” said environmental activist Kumar Anthranam. â€œAt the last meeting held in February, company officials had stormed out of the Ministry when their demands were not met. It looks like they have now struck back, unleashing the GM mosquito to ‘punish’ all of us!”
The Ministry of Health declined to comment on the specific dealings with any of its suppliers, but confirmed that a major anti-malaria contract continuing from the 1990s was not extended for 2009.
â€œAt this point, we simply cannot comment on reports about GM mosquitoes,” a health ministry source said on the condition of anonymity. â€œWe will soon appoint an expert committee to look into the matter. Due procedures have to be followed.”
For years, American and Swiss pharmaceutical companies have been researching into genetically modifying both the disease causing parasites as well as their vectors. In 2007, researchers at the Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, Maryland, reported that they had genetically engineered a mosquito that was resistant to the single-celled malaria parasites called Plasmodium. It was a hailed as a breakthrough in humanity’s struggle against the ancient disease.
“If they could tinker with some genes in mosquitoes, they can probably tinker with any genes in mosquitoes,” speculated Dr Rathuvitarana, urging health authorities to take this risk seriously.
Meanwhile, the Green Hornets called upon the Ministry of Health to reveal to the public the full and exact dealings with the said multinational company, and the threats the company officials are alleged to have made.
â€œThis is a matter of great public importance, and people’s lives are at risk,” the statement said. It added: “In this instance, we commend the Ministry of Health for taking the right decision and for standing by its decision in spite of threats of reprisals by the supplier company. These western conspirators now need to be exposed.”