A panel of experts concluded that it is too early to fight insect-borne diseases with genetically-tweaked insects. Researchers at the National Academies of Science, Engineering and Medicine called for caution and more research on the safety of the species.
Although, the experts’ conclusion is not mandatory, it will likely have a major impact on when GMO bugs will be released into environments to combat diseases such as Zika, malaria, and Lyme.
People have invested a lot of hope in the “gene drive”-based technology used to alter the genes of mosquitoes because it may “naturally” contain the Zika epidemic. But the National Academies thinks that the techniques are experimental and should be treated as such.
The technology allows scientists to release into the wild modified species that can spread their edited genes to other insects and kill entire populations of disease-carrying bugs. But these modified insects can also lead to extinctions and there are more uncertainties than certainties for the time being.
Although experts haven’t rejected the procedure altogether, they said that there is “insufficient evidence” that it is safe to release the bugs into the wild. The group called for “highly-controlled field trials” to ensure that the method is safe.
According to the 202-page report, which was released Wednesday, humanity should resist the temptation of getting out of laboratory modified that species that haven’t been thoroughly tested.
The expert panel argued that there are currently no plans to offset the unintended outcomes of such technologies. So, society should not give in to the pressure of current crisis situations without ensuring that the methods don’t get out of control.
James Collins, co-author of the report and co-chair of the expert panel, noted that the techniques are also very “promising.” But he also said that a virus or bacterium targeted by the modified genes could adapt and spread to other species.
Plus, the modified species may alter entire ecosystems in hard to imagine ways. So far, the promoters of the gene editing technology have tested it on only four insect species in tightly controlled laboratory settings, experts said.
“Much of what we talk about as benefit and harm is speculative,”
Prof. Elizabeth Heitman, co-chair of the expert panel, said.
Other critics of the technique were disappointed with the report for failing to include the possibility for the new genetically modified bugs to be used as biological weapons against humans.
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