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Groups warn against release of genetically engineered mosquitoes in Nigeria

Over 75 civil society organisations from Nigeria, Africa and other countries in the world have condemned moves to open the way for the release of genetically modified mosquitoes in Nigeria.

GM mosquitoes
Organisations from all over the world have warned Nigerian officials not to open the way for the release of genetically modified mosquitoes in the country

On Friday June 6, 2020 at a virtual meeting of the West African Integrated Vector Management Programme, Rufus Ebegba, who is the Vice Chairman of the Programme and Director of Nigeria’s National Biosafety Management Agency (NBMA), stated that “there is the need to accelerate the development of regulatory pathways for genetically based vector control methods such as transgenic mosquitoes”.

On June 30, 2020, NBMA held a meeting to review the National Guidelines on the Regulation  of Gene Editing where the Director of the agency stated that “these guidelines are not to impede on the technology but to see how this technology is applied to enhance our economy and to assist the government…”

Reacting to the above, the groups in a press statement made available to EnviroNews on Sunday, July 5, 2020 warned against introduction of the transgenic mosquitoes (as well as other “risky and unproven technologies”) into Nigeria as, according to them, such releases pose serious risks to humans, biodiversity and to ecosystem balance.

The groups noted that, presently, there is no peer reviewed assessments for these transgenic mosquitos, no international protocols for evaluating their safety implications, and that the technology is dependent on and controlled by corporate bodies.

According to the Director of the Health of Mother Earth Foundation (HOMEF), Nnimmo Bassey, the said regulatory pathways for genetically engineered vector control of mosquitoes are “rigged pathways” to make the environment the test ground for the “risky and needless experimentation”. HOMEF is one of the over 75 organisations that endorsed the statement.

“From our experience with genetically modified food crops in Nigeria, having the provisions in place to regulate the release of such organisms is equivalent to express permits for their introduction as the agency responsible for this regulation acts more like a promoter of the technology than a regulator.

“Nigeria must show leadership in the protection of African biodiversity and not allow an agency of government run amok with whatever technologies promoters suggest to it,” Bassey was quoted as saying in the statement.

He added that tampering with genetic materials of living organisms is already creating problems in the world with the emergence and spread of zoonotic infections occasioned largely by loss of genetic diversity and habitat losses due to such manipulations.

The shortcoming of these transgenic mosquitoes is already evident from the experiments done in Brazil and in Burkina Faso, stated Mariann Bassey-Orovwuje, Coordinator of the Food Sovereignty Programme of Friends of the Earth, Nigeria and Africa.

“The release of millions of genetically modified mosquitoes in Brazil between 2013 and 2015 by the biotech company, Oxitec, with the plan to reduce the number of disease-carrying mosquitoes is shown to have resulted (in addition to the fact that the population of mosquitoes bounced back after a few months) to unexpected transfer of genes from the gene-edited mosquitoes to the native insects which gave rise to tougher hybrid species,” she explained.

The statement further noted: “In July 2019, the genetically modified mosquitoes were released in Bana village in Burkina Faso by the Target Malaria research consortium as an initial test run before the open releases of gene drive mosquitoes, with the aim to reduce population of Anopheles mosquitoes that causes malaria.

“The failure of this release include the incidental release of some biting female mosquitoes during the experiments which puts the community people at risk.

“Also, Target Malaria made claims of community acceptance for the project whereas testimonies from community people reveal that they have not been properly informed about the project or its potential risks. This is not different from the experience we have had with genetically modified cowpea and cotton which have been approved for commercial release in Nigeria.

“Third, there is no published environmental risk assessment, besides an incomprehensive one published by Target Malaria. Again this has been the case in Nigeria with acclaimed risk assessment done on genetically modified crops as results of such assessments are not made available to the public or subjected to open and transparent consultation.

“We have no confidence that the situation will be different with the transgenic mosquitoes or that requirements for liability and redress will be enforced.”

The groups noted that the release of the GM mosquitoes in Burkina Faso is the first open release in Africa. Nigeria, they disclose, reviewed its biosafety law in 2019 to include definitions on extreme technologies including gene drives, so as to pave way for their adoption.

They allege that the review was speedily proposed and approved despite strenuous objections sent by groups including HOMEF, adding that there have been calls over the years to review the law to close existing fundamental gaps which make it impossible for it to serve the interests of the people.

“While we appreciate that malaria is a problem in Nigeria and many other nations and that urgent measures to address it are needed, we believe that transgenic mosquitoes are not the solution.

“GM mosquitoes are a relatively new application of GM technology and present very different risks, and for which the international community has had virtually no risk assessment or regulatory experience. Nigeria does not need GMOs and no matter what their sponsors claim, we don’t have the capacity nor experience to dabble into this new, unfamiliar and risky technology,” the statement stressed, adding:

“The groups condemn any move to introduce the transgenic mosquitoes or any other gene edited organisms into Nigeria. They assert that our regulatory agencies should not sell us off as guinea pigs for risky technologies such as gene drives which have potential to wipe off whole populations of species and to be used as a biological weapon.

“Rather, let government support natural vector control measures which are safe and effective including by  providing better sanitation and housing for underserved Nigerians.”

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