The government is set to deny permission for open field trials to introduce genetically modified (GM) Aedes aegypti mosquitoes.

The new GM technology claims to control the spread of the dengue, chikungunya and zika virus in India by using GM mosquitoes to disturb the life-cycle of the virus-carrying mosquitoes.

Mumbai-based company GBIT, associated with seed giant Mahyco and the UK-based Oxitec, is seeking regulatory approvals from the Department of Biotechnology (DBT) and other Ministries to introduce the technology in the country.

Worried over consequences

Top Central sources said government scientists are sceptical about the efficacy of the technology. They are worried about the unknown consequences and the likely impact on the environment owing to the release of GM mosquitoes.

This development comes at a time when GM technology in India is facing an uphill task as GM cotton’s sustainability is being questioned by farmers and agricultural experts.

The Centre has only allowed GM technology in cotton seeds in spite of massive research and lobbying by corporates for other applications. Until now, no other technology application has been given clearance by the government. In Maharashtra, last year the cotton crop faced an unprecedented attack of pink bollworms in spite of using GM cotton seeds.

Using GM technology devised by Oxitec, GBIT wants to release a huge number of male Aedes aegypti mosquitoes carrying a self-limiting gene into the environment. The biotechnology behind this method claims that these mosquitoes will mate with female Aedes aegypti and their progeny will inherit these modified genes.

But due to the altered genes, the hatchling will have a drastically reduced lifespan, and not reach adulthood. Over two or three generations, the population of these mosquitoes will get decimated. Reduction in such carrier mosquitoes will prevent the spread of viral diseases.

GBIT, which stands for Gangabishan Bhikulal Investment and Trading Ltd, is privately held by Barwale family, which is also the founder of Mahyco seeds. GBIT has tied up with Oxitec, which was formed in 2002 by Oxford University Innovation. In 2015, it was acquired by US-based Intrexon.

GBIT-Oxitec has a lab at Jalna, Maharashtra, which is also the main development centre of Mahyco. The project is called Friendly™ Aedes, and in January 2017 outdoor caged trials of the mosquitoes were started to demonstrate the efficacy of GM technology in suppressing the local Aedes aegypti population. In October 2017, when this reporter visited Jalna, the lab was out of bounds for mediapersons.

‘A safe technology’

In an email response to BusinessLine , GBIT said Friendly™ Mosquito technology is a safe and effective approach to suppress Aedes aegypti mosquito population, as shown in multiple trials globally. GBIT said it is working closely with regulators in India to complete various protocols to establish the safety and efficacy of the technology.

“We anticipate that once deployed after the approvals by the authorities, this technology will immensely help the country minimise vector-borne diseases such as dengue and chikungunya. We will take the technology forward only after completion of the due process of regulatory clearances and, importantly, after the acceptance of the technology from the communities who will benefit from this approach. We will continue to engage with all stakeholders in this process,” the statement said.

Senior officials of DBT were not available for comments.