Panama is considering releasing millions of genetically modified mosquitoes in a bid to stop the spread of the Zika virus.
According to AFP, a Panamanian heath official, Israel Cedeno, said last week that the government is looking into the “viability and feasibility” of reproducing an experiment using GM mosquitoes which took place two years ago.
Field testing of GM mosquitoes took place in Panama, in 2014, and was conducted by a British biotech firm, Oxitec.
The Aedes aegypti mosquitoes are responsible for carrying Zika, however, it is only the blood-sucking females which spread the virus. The 2014 trial released genetically modified male mosquitoes which then bred with the wild blood-sucking females. The GM males and wild females produced offspring which, dying at the larva stage, were unable to reproduce.
AFP reports that the experiment led to a 93 percent reduction of the mosquitoes in the area.
Trial and error
Conducted by Brazilian company Moscamed, a similar trial, which raised and tested GM mosquitoes, took place in Jacobina, Brazil, in 2014. According to an article by The Independent, Moscamed’s president, Aldo Malavasi, reported that there had be a 90 percent reduction in the number of non-GM Aedes aegypti mosquitoes.
The GM mosquito experiments in Brazil and Panama were initially conducted in a bid to halt the spread of dengue. The Aedes aegypti mosquitoes also spreads dengue fever, which in its most severe form – hemorrhagic dengue – can lead to death.
The experiments, however, have not been without critics. In 2014, UK-based non-government organization, GeneWatch UK, released a briefing urging Oxitec to carry out further laboratory test before releasing the mosquitoes into the wild. The director of GeneWatch UK, Helen Wallace, told The Independent in 2014, that GM insects “are even harder to recall than plants are if anything goes wrong”.
Wallace also wrote in the New York Times that “the benefits of releasing billions of genetically engineered mosquitoes into the environment has been exaggerated and the risks have been downplayed.”
The plan as to whether or not to release millions of mosquitoes in Panama is still being decided. Cedeno told the AFP that the project would be very costly, and that the Panamanian government would have to consider whether the money would be better spent on a public information campaign aimed at eliminating breeding grounds for mosquitoes.
Defects and disease
The Zika virus has spread rapidly across Latin America. There is no cure for Zika, but for most people, the virus is either very mild or asymptomatic. However, the virus has been associated with a surge in the number of microcephaly – a birth defect which results in a child being born with a small head.
Microcephaly can result in mild to severe developmental problems, depending on the person, and in Brazil, the government is investigating some 4,000 suspected cases. According to article in The New York Times in January, Brazil witnessed 2,782, cases of microcephaly in 2015, compared to just under 147 cases in 2014.