Malaysia became the second country in the world to release genetically modified (GM) mosquitoes into the wild in a trial whose timing has surprised international and local scientists as well as protesters.
The country's Institute for Medical Research announced this week (26 January) that around 6,000 GM male Aedes aegypti mosquitoes had been released at an uninhabited, forested site in the inland district of Bentong in Pahang state last month (21 December).
The trial passed all its regulatory hurdles last year. But the actual release took many by surprise — even the head of Malaysia's Genetic Modifications Advisory Committee, Ahmad Parveez Ghulam Kadir, admitted he was unaware that it had taken place.
In recent days local media had reported that the release had not yet occurred because of bad weather. Meanwhile the international press agency AFP had said that the release was delayed because of protests by nongovernmental organisations. It quoted a senior government official, Mohamed Mohamad Salleh, the biosafety department's director of research and evaluation, as saying that the trials had been postponed.
The trial also involved the release of 6,000 ordinary male mosquitoes and both groups were killed with insecticides in early January, with monitoring to continue for several months, said the institute in a press release.
Scientists are comparing the flying ranges and survival rates of the two groups.
Offspring of the mosquitoes die before reaching sexual maturity in the absence of the antibiotic tetracycline. It is hoped this strategy could be used to cut mosquito numbers and fight dengue fever, a disease whose incidence has risen dramatically in recent decades.
No further release can occur until post-trial monitoring is completed in accordance with the guidelines laid out by the advisory committee, with the results analysed and presented in peer-reviewed scientific journals or at meetings.
Releasing the GM mosquitoes in an inhabited area — which was part of the application the institute and its partner in the project, UK-based biotech company Oxitec, originally made — would have required the institute to gain the consensus and approval of local communities via a public forum at least two weeks before the release.
Lim Li Ching, senior biosafety researcher at the non-profit Third World Network, said: 'In their interpretation of the conditions [of the approval] they did not have to organise a public forum for the release in an uninhabited area'.
She said that the institute should have been more transparent about its actions considering the criticisms about excessive secrecy that surrounded trials done by Oxitec on the Caribbean island of Grand Cayman in 2009.
Ahmad Parveez emphasised that the release was small-scale (6,000 compared with Grand Cayman's three million), that the mosquitoes would all die within the monitoring period and that the goal was a modest one of data collection rather than trying to suppress the local mosquito population.
The campaigning organisation Genewatch UK recently published a report saying that the original risk assessment by the Malaysian GM Advisory Committee was incomplete and lacked full transparency because it did not list the potential hazards it had identified and its evaluations of their likelihood, consequences and estimated overall risk.
Genewatch UK also released a report last December about Oxitec and the Grand Cayman trials in which it claimed the company was driven to excessive speed by a poor financial situation.