Pi Attitude Zone: Ethics & Altruism

Backlash Against Genetically Modified Mosquitoes

The Aedes Aegypti mosquito is one of humanity’s deadliest enemies.  Mosquitoes have perhaps been responsible for half of all the deaths in human history. Aedes infected millions with Yellow Fever, killing whole communities before a vaccine was introduced in the 1930s.  Today they still infect 50 million people annually with Dengue Fever, one of the world’s fastest-spreading viral diseases.  Around half a million sufferers go into shock, bleed from facial orifices, and suffer excruciating pain.  Many die. 

There is no vaccine or cure for Dengue Fever, and no treatment that really works.  Eradicating the disease means eradicating the insect species that propagates it. Biologists have argued that if Aedes mosquitoes disappeared altogether, nature would not really miss them. But the species has developed resistance to insecticides, many of which are already useless.

Enter Oxford Insect Technologies, or Oxitec, a small, struggling company spun off from a university zoology department.  They carefully and patiently field-tested a new preventive technique in controlled areas in Brazil where Dengue is rife.  Preliminary results were impressive.

Oxitec developed a way of genetically modifying male Aedes mosquitoes so that when they mate, the young from the eggs they fertilize quickly die.  Tests show that the disease-spreading insects can be targeted without harming any other plant or animal.  In effect, man’s ingenuity had discovered a way of controlling a killer species and the diseases it inflicts on humans -- precisely the same objective as the failed insecticide programs.  

Already endemic in places like Brazil, Dengue recently broke out in Hawaii, Texas and Florida.  Not long ago, thirty cases were reported in the Florida Keys, a tourist destination hosting two million visitors a year.  Dengue infections doubled there the following year.  Preventive insecticide programs had already reached unacceptable levels, achieving virtually no effect.  Which was when Oxitec was invited to a town meeting in Key West to explain there was another way to tackle the problem, and to invite an open debate.

One might suppose that these scientists would be welcomed with open arms. Think again.  Environmentalist flyers were posted warning residents that “They are planning on releasing genetically modified mosquitoes on you, your family and the environment”.  A packed meeting hall shouted down the visitors, condemning them for “playing God” and unleashing “robo-frankenstein mosquitoes” on an American paradise. “Don’t do this to our community!  Anything genetically modified should not be touched”, opined one vehement woman, “But your minds are made up. I know it.  I can just sense it”.  They weren’t.  But the meeting erupted in applause anyway.

Pi says: when legitimate and benign science comes up against atavism, there’s a good chance atavism will prevail.

Zone: Ethics & Altruism Country: Multiple Geographies Product – Other