GMO Mosquitoes and the Selling of Bad Science.

The following piece was originally published as a Letter to the Editor of Key West, the Newspaper, known locally as The Blue Paper.

Dear Editor,

Your most recent letter from Water Lagraves, GMO mosquito advocate, brings out a number of important issues in an already complex and multi-sided debated. Let me contribute some additional clarity and perspective so that informed citizens may make their own choice without undue influence from outside interests.

I must first dismiss the ad hominem attacks as exactly that. While I’m delighted that Mr. Lagraves finds my original social media posts “slick and professional,” I create them voluntarily out of genuine concern for my fellow citizens and the environment we share. If there were a concerted effort by real estate agents to prevent the release of GMO mosquitoes (a ludicrous assertion), what would be its genesis? Could property owners or tourists here be negatively affected by millions of mosquitoes, including females that bite and carry disease? Might they be opposed to the very real threat of environmental contamination from huge releases of artificially-engineered animals and the disgusting waste that the Marathon GMO mosquito factory must produce in order to grow them?

If there were no issues of concern here, why would any real estate agent (or anyone else) be speaking out? Over 170,000 people have signed the petition at Change.org to stop this test, and that was before I stepped up our social media campaign. Surely not all of them are real estate agents. They can’t all even be living in the Keys. It’s clear, then, that this issue goes beyond what happens to anyone here. This is an opportunity (a mandate, really), to set the standard for how genetically engineered animals are used in society… or not.

While science is touted as the Holy Grail of human pursuits, capable of eliminating all our problems if we only let scientists have their way, history is littered with experiments and science projects which were misguided, useless, and harmful to life on this planet. Professor Stephen Hawking has famously pointed out that most threats to humanity today come from science and technology.

The worst science project in human history, the nuclear bomb, was rushed in under false pretenses (that Hitler was working on one, too) and later sold as a panacea for all the world’s ails. After Hiroshima, the same organizations which had created the bomb were ready with a PR campaign to turn the weapons of war into “gentle giants” for human good. Even Walt Disney got into the act with a cartoon video, shown in the theaters nationwide. Radiation was promised to bring us unlimited free energy, new medical technologies, fresh water from the oceans, and better agriculture.

In the end, we found out that radiation damages living things and permanently contaminates the environment in ways that even those most opposed to it couldn’t foresee. The mechanism of ionizing radiation’s damaging effects is that of slicing DNA apart, causing spontaneous mutations. These result in direct wounds at the site, whole-body illnesses, and generational disorders. Nuclear waste is the most poisonous substance ever created by mankind and, like GMO mosquitoes, offers no “recall” option.

There are two points to this story. The first is that science could not anticipate the effects of releasing radiation into the environment on a wide scale through nuclear tests, plant leaks, waste, and nuclear accidents. These concerns, these “What if’s?,” as Lagraves calls them, are at the heart of the worst problems unleashed by the nuclear era. The actual costs and consequences of the proliferation of nuclear weapons and power plants were simply unimaginable to the scientists working at the government’s secret Hanford laboratory who made it possible.

The second correlation this story has with GMO mosquitoes is that the artificial animals will enter the world with crippled, damaged DNA from the outset. Not only is the world of genomics just as complicated (and poorly understood) as the world of particle physics, it’s equally dangerous. It is simply arrogant to assert that today’s scientists are able to mitigate or even know the effects of tinkering with the software of life.

The track record on GMO plants is not a good one, with glyphosate, the main ingredient in Monsanto’s Roundup, recently turning up in “organic” feminine hygiene products. GMO plants have also been found to have numerous effects on surrounding crops, including overtaking them. Years into the GMO food experiment, we are only beginning to see the generational effects these foods can have. Numerous doctors have turned their patients away from GMO foods, especially patients with the now-rampant IBD, Crohn’s, and other GI symptoms which were rare before GMO foods appeared.  Several documentaries examine the case studies with these patients who see good results when GMOs are discontinued.

As patients, their perspective doesn’t come from a scientific test which guarantees that GMO foods cause health problems. That’s not necessary, any more so than it would have been necessary to prove that radiation was dangerous. It’s enough to know that we don’t know. This precautionary principle was not applied in the widespread adoption of GMO plants and we are seeing the consequences. How much more complicated are GMO animals than plants?

Today’s DNA technologies are primitive in comparison to geneticist’s plans for the future. Already, the Human Genome Project is working on a way to construct an artificial version of the entire human genome from scratch, all 3 billion base pairs. Clearly the goal is to create synthetic humans, or at least bio-engineered humans with different (better?) characteristics than natural ones. The methodology is to knock-out sequences of human DNA and insert artificial replacements made up of different sequences (and even different proteins) than we’re made of now.

It’s alarming to draw a connection with government “medical” experiments, but one must. In the 1950’s, the Army’s Fort Detrick lab conducted experiments on Floridians under names like Project Drop Kick. Mosquitoes were infected with Yellow Fever and dropped on Avon Park, Florida in order to see how they might be used as weapons. A document obtained through the Freedom of Information Act even contains a table showing a “cost per death” as low as 29c per person, simply by releasing infected mosquitoes near urban populations. Large portions of the document are redacted, but long time Key Westers say this island was part of these tests, too.

GMO mosquitoes have also been tested in Japan as a way to inoculate large populations with vaccines injected through mosquito bites. Like the Tuskegee Experiment, these are not conspiracy theories. These are actual tests which have already taken place and the Zika/GMO mosquito may be part of another such test. The same Fort Detrick laboratory which ran Project Drop Kick and other mosquito weapons programs is now working on Zika. It’s even staffed by the grandson of the virus’s discover. Whether for good or evil, the citizens of Key West have the right to reject such tests.

The backroom money deals I referred to in my previous letter are exactly that. After we leaked the secret agreement between Oxitec and the District on the Never Again Facebook page, Florida Keys News contacted the Mosquito District and confirmed the existence of the document. Their story, published August 25th, verifies that a secret (ie: backroom) deal involving money did take place. Another leaked document shows the District agreed to sell GMO mosquitoes to Miami-Dade County and charge an undisclosed amount of rent to Oxitec for use of the public building. Although this item appeared in the District’s “Board Book,” it was not presented to the public for discussion.

Just as the nuclear scientists made unlimited promises and backed them up with an industry ready to sell, so the GMO mosquito hawkers must resort to seemingly any tactic to bring us to a glorious future in which we depend on their products to merely live on the planet. As many scientific problems as the experiment has, it may be an even bigger failure from a public relations standpoint. At every turn, and for nearly five years, the company has continued to downplay the lack of risk assessment and proper testing of their product.

And who will pay for damages if this project does get out of control? The FDA report lists a number of environmental and human health risks but the secret agreement says that Oxitec won’t have to pay to clean any of them up. The company says it’s only liable up to the amount of its insurance coverage, a measly $3 million for environmental damage. Three million dollars? In the Florida Keys? That would hardly cover damage to five properties here. For human health risks, Oxitec is only insured up to $5 million. By comparison, Merck was on the hook for $4.85 billion for the injuries and deaths caused by its expensive aspirin substitute, Vioxx.

Key West City Commissioner and attorney Sam Kaufman asked at a recent meeting, “I wanna know why, in the proposed contract with Oxitec, why are they indemnified?… If there’s nothing to be worried about, why are they limiting their liability?… Why is there no backup plan? What if something goes wrong? What if some people do get sick, God forbid? What happens then? Who’s gonna cover it? Not Oxitec! Not according to their contract.”

As a way of dismissing these concerns, the biotech firm claims (and Mr. Lagraves repeats) that somehow the GMO mosquitoes have been “approved by the FDA.” An examination of the actual paperwork, however, will show that only Oxitec’s test plan has been approved, not the mosquito itself. The basis of science is repeatability, yet no outside scientist has been allowed to test the GMO mosquito to see if the company’s glowing results can be reproduced. Even the test methodologies employed in Grand Cayman and Brazil must be called into question, as with any scientific “breakthrough” that’s claimed. To promote the patented product of one company without outside, peer-reviewed scientific evidence of its efficacy and safety isn’t science and it isn’t public health. It’s marketing.

It took the FDA more than 20 years to decide (just this month) that antibacterial soap wasn’t a good idea. Not only does it not clean any better than regular soap, it creates antibiotic resistance. If the FDA with its marvelous oversight took that long to figure out putting triclosan in soap was dangerous and unnecessary, how long would it take for them to see the effects of the infinitely more complicated genetically engineered animals? It’s absurd to think that the FDA could effectively rule on the safety of this when we’re at such an early stage with these technologies.

I’m glad that Mr. Lagraves mentioned Wolbachia. The University of Kentucky lab behind it has decided to submit to the far more stringent regulations of EPA pesticides. The group already has an Experimental Use Permit and an approved product label for California and Florida. No one loves pesticide, but you do have to demonstrate that one is effective and safe before you can sell it in the United States. This is just as true for the can of ant spray on sale at CVS as it is for Wolbachia. The quantitative results required by the EPA for Wolbachia mosquitoes are far more extensive than the “product claim” required by the FDA for an animal drug, as Oxitec has chosen to portray this. You can compare them for yourselves. Oxitec’s FDA Report (or FONSI) is online and easy to find with Google. The Wolbachia permit for the Florida Keys is number 88877-EUP-2 and available on the EPA’s website.

Let’s say that, in fairness, Wolbachia and GMO mosquitoes are at the same stage of testing. Neither has been proven helpful. Neither has been proven dangerous. But we know that bacteria operate on a different level of life than DNA mutations. Chemical reactions are less complex and less dangerous than nuclear reactions because they occur at a higher level of the system. In the same way, bacteria operate a higher level than genes and are easier to understand and manage. Bacteria are therefore safer than DNA mutations, given the imperfections of human beings and our limited abilities at precognition. For the frosting on the cake, Wolbachia has been shown to impair the transmission of human diseases like Yellow Fever, Zika, dengue, and chikungunya. No Oxitec study has been able to show the same results for GMO mosquitoes.

Someday, we may attain something like the singularity — a “Star Trek” computer we can ask real world questions and get better answers than humans could give. We could someday ask, “What will happen if we release GMO mosquitoes in the Florida Keys?,” and that computer with millions of times more processing capability than any individual person has today might actually be able to compile all the variables into a realistic result. The aforementioned Stephen Hawking, along with Bill Gates, Elon Musk, and Ray Kurzweil, believe that such a computer will be available soon. But it isn’t here today.

Lacking the singularity, or even any good studies that say it’s safe or effective, GMO mosquitoes should be moved aside while other, safer options are pursued. And knowing the reality of radiation damage to DNA and the poor track record of GMO plants, we should consider genetic tinkering as a last resort, if at all. The Zika virus is, first and foremost, a sexually transmitted disease and must be treated as such. STDs can be prevented with condoms. Most people who contract Zika have no symptoms or merely cold symptoms. The real risks of Zika are likely to be overblown, as with other recently-hyped virus scares that always come with a product for sale. Adding a complex and dangerous artificial animal with damaged DNA into the mix is irresponsible, unscientific, and likely to be motivated purely by monetary interests rather than genuine human concerns.

— David Bethune

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