Working with local health officials and university scientists and after receiving appropriate approvals, Oxitec undertook experimental releases of these modified mosquitoes in the Cayman Islands and in the Juazeiro region of Brazil. According to the published accounts of these releases, the Oxitec approach to controlling mosquito population was highly effective, reducing the infected mosquito population by 80 percent in the Cayman Islands and by 90 percent in Brazil. Oxitec is awaiting Brazilian Health Ministry approval of this approach as an acceptable dengue-control policy.
In the Cayman Islands and Brazil, GeneWatch activists spread alarming, false rumors that the field trials of genetically engineered mosquitoes were dangerous and had been undertaken without informing the public. Similarly, activists have circulated petitions in Key West, Florida — where dengue reappeared three years ago after an absence of more than 70 years — to prevent the release of the mosquitoes there. The sentiments of the director of a mosquito-control agency in Florida illustrate the difficulties of dealing with the activists: “I thought that if I presented the facts in a reasonable manner, people would respond in a reasonable way. But that’s not happening.”
3. Nice rice prevents blindness and death
The third example is a potential nutritional/medical breakthrough called Golden Rice. Rice is a food staple for billions of people, especially in Asia, and although it is an excellent source of calories, it lacks certain micronutrients necessary for a complete diet. In the 1980s and 1990s, German scientists Ingo Potrykus and Peter Beyer developed rice varieties that are biofortified, or enriched, by the introduction of genes that enable the edible endosperm of rice to produce beta-carotene, the precursor of vitamin A. (It is converted in the human body, as needed, to the active form of the vitamin.)
The scourge of vitamin A deficiency is epidemic among poor people whose diet consists largely of rice (the edible portion of which contains neither beta-carotene nor vitamin A) or other carbohydrate-rich, vitamin-poor sources of calories. In developing countries, 200–300 million children of preschool age are at risk of vitamin A deficiency, which increases their susceptibility to common childhood infections such as measles and diarrheal diseases and is the single most important cause of childhood blindness in developing countries. Every year, about half a million children go blind as a result of vitamin A deficiency, and 70 percent of those die within a year of losing their sight.
To test the Golden Rice, in 2008, researchers from Zehjiang Academy of Medical Sciences, in cooperation with Tufts University, undertook clinical trials in children. These researchers had received approval from the appropriate ethics and institutional-review boards of the respective institutions. As reported in their published paper on the clinical trials, children who ate the Golden Rice had higher levels of vitamin A than if they had consumed traditional rice or other food sources of the vitamin.
Once again, in spite of the unequivocal benefits to public health, activists not only opposed the product but made bogus allegations about its testing. In China, Greenpeace criticized the Golden Rice trial, claiming in a press release that children had been “used as guinea pigs.” Chinese news agencies picked up the story, inaccurately reporting that the researchers had conducted dangerous, unauthorized experiments on poor children, and within days, police had interrogated the researchers and coerced from them statements disavowing the research. Their homes were searched and research documents seized. (Previously, Greenpeace activists had first alleged that Golden Rice would deliver toxic amounts of vitamin A, and when that was shown to be virtually impossible, changed tack and claimed that it would provide too little Vitamin A to be effective.)
4. Life-saving products obstructed by irresponsible activism
Although these three safe, effective, genetically engineered products — which are only a microcosm of what is possible — offer tremendous promise for public health, especially in poorer countries, all have elicited tenacious and cynical antagonism from activists. Part of the ripple effect is that the intransigent opposition to genetic engineering by anti-science, anti-technology groups provides already risk-averse regulators the political “cover” to delay regulatory approvals. The result is that more people — especially children — continue to die unnecessarily and potential innovators are discouraged from entering the field.
Activism intended to delay progress toward life-saving products and technologies is irresponsible and despicable. If actions by leaders of nations resulted in such public-health calamities, they would be accused of crimes against humanity.
The callousness of the anti-genetic-engineering activists should appall us, and if we fail to oppose these malefactors, we should also be ashamed.
— Henry I. Miller, a physician and molecular biologist, is the Robert Wesson Fellow in Scientific Philosophy and Public Policy at Stanford University’s Hoover Institution. He was the founding director of the Office of Biotechnology at the FDA. Drew L. Kershen is the Earl Sneed Centennial Professor of Law (Emeritus), University of Oklahoma College of Law, in Norman, Okla.