GeneWatch PR: British Overseas Territory used as private lab for GM mosquito company

A new GeneWatch UK briefing questions the role of the British scientific establishment in the release of three million genetically modified (GM) mosquitoes in the Cayman Islands earlier this year (1). The secret experiments were revealed by UK biotech company Oxitec last month, which claimed misleadingly that the mosquitoes were sterile. The GeneWatch briefing shows that no public consultation was undertaken on potential risks and informed consent was not sought from local people. Oxitec is a spin-out company from Oxford University and the trials were funded by the Wellcome Trust: neither body appears to have required any ethical oversight before using Grand Cayman for the trials.

Oxford University is an investor in Oxitec, which it expects to generate income for it in the future. The company also owes GBP2.25 million to a multi-millionaire venture capital investor in Boston, which it is due to pay back by 2013. The company is losing GBP1.7 million a year and its business plan requires it to commercialise its products and charge ongoing fees for continual releases of the GM mosquitoes, which are intended to reduce the transmission of the dengue virus. Former science minister Lord Drayson and former Royal Society President Lord May both acted as advisors to investors in the company.

GeneWatch UK's Director, Dr Helen Wallace said: "The British scientific establishment is acting like the last bastion of colonialism, using an Overseas Territory as a private lab. There is no excuse for funding trials without public consultation or ethical oversight to help out a spin-out company that is heavily in debt".

Trials of the same GM mosquitoes are expected in Malaysia soon. The biggest risk with the company's approach is that a different, more invasive species of mosquito (the Asian Tiger mosquito) may move into the ecological niche vacated by the species it is targeting (the Yellow Fever mosquito), potentially transmitting more diseases and becoming harder to eradicate. The company has created GM Asian Tiger mosquitoes with a view to marketing these in future to tackle this expected problem.

"People in Malaysia should make their own decision about how to best tackle dengue," said Dr Wallace, "But they need to be informed about the potential risks and why the company is so keen to push ahead. There is a real danger that this approach to reducing mosquito populations could lead to harm to public health. It is also likely to lock developing countries into continual payments for ongoing releases of two GM mosquito products."

Oxitec's scientists have published computer models of falling mosquito populations as a result of releasing their GM mosquitoes, but they have not included the effect of the two different species of mosquitoes, and their interactions with the four forms of the dengue virus and other tropical diseases.

Oxitec has close links to the GM crop company Syngenta and is also developing GM versions of agricultural pests which it intends to commercialise in future, partly to combat the growing problem of resistant pests, caused by the use of pest resistant (Bt) GM maize, soybeans and cotton (2). It has received significant public subsidies, including more than GBP2.5 million in grants from the UK government-funded Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council (BBSRC), mainly for joint projects with Oxford University.

For further information contact:

Dr Helen Wallace 01298-24300 (office); 07903-311584 (mobile)

Notes for editors:

(1)   Oxitec's genetically-modified mosquitoes: in the public interest? GeneWatch UK briefing. December 2010. Available on:

(2)   Oxitec's agricultural pest products are listed on:

Bollworms genetically-modified to contain a fluorescent marker have been tested in the USA but these were sterilised using radiation, rather than being genetically-modified with Oxitec's 'conditional-lethality' trait.

Cotton bollworm pests resistant to the Bt toxin used in GM cotton were reported this week in India:

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