The Controversy upon the Use of Genetically Modified Mosquitoes and the Ethics behind This Intervention
Before the advent of gene drive technology in the control of insect transmitted diseases in both human beings and plants, scientists used the sterile insect technique to reduce the population of the organisms. However, this method was not satisfactory because female insects that were already inseminated in other areas immigrated and continued multiplying thus rendering the technique ineffective in controlling the insect population (Macer, 2003). Advanced technological innovations have enabled scientists to create genetically modified organisms. In the past, scientists had succeeded only in creating genetically modified crops, but an innovative advancement has seen the genetic modification of more complex living beings including insects.
The use of sterile insect technique was not applicable to the control of mosquitoes population because of their large numbers and the vast areas involved. For this reason, in an attempt to completely eradicate or reduce the incidence of diseases that are transmitted by mosquitoes, scientists have created a genetically modified species of mosquitoes that are incapable of transmitting diseases. Illnesses that are transmitted by mosquitoes include dengue, Zika virus, malaria, yellow fever, etc. The vector-borne diseases have been among the leading causes of death across the world especially in tropical countries.
Controversies and Ethics behind Genetic Engineering
The creation of genetically modified mosquitoes has raised much concern with many people expressing their fears about what these mosquitoes would become once they are released into the ecosystem. The individuals who are against the innovation have expressed worries concerning hybridization between members belonging to the same species. They are afraid that these gene drive technology could result in the creation of a dangerous species that could be dangerous for other living beings in the ecosystem and especially for humans (Macer, 2003). Supporters of the technology argue that the protection of human life should be a top priority. Therefore, any innovation that will reduce diseases and suffering among humans should be supported. Gene drive technology has met a lot of opposition from the public. One of the issues that have been raised by the majority of people is that there exists natural significance of each and every organism at the ecological unit level that should never be modified.
In response to such questions and concerns it can be mentioned that even without human intervention, DNA transfers occur naturally across different species in the environment (Macer, 2003). Such changes in the genetic structures occur spontaneously and are not under control, which according to many scientists is dangerous. Supporters of genetic engineering, therefore, argue that it is better to modify the genes scientifically using processes that can be monitored rather than letting the changes occur naturally. Genetic engineering is therefore considered safer than natural change. The ethical dilemma concerning the transfer of genes across species can be solved because genetic engineering is carried out in almost the same way in which the organism alters their DNA organization naturally.
There are some people who strongly believe in the fact that every organism that was created by God and has a purpose. Changing organisms, therefore, renders them unable to serve the purpose for which they were created. Although human beings were given authority to control plants and animals, they should do it moderately.
Another controversy that is related to the teleological explanation is that editing genes in living beings created by God is like trying to be God himself. Nevertheless, this argument does not seem to be persuasive however frequently it is raised. The reason for this is that for many centuries human beings have been performing hybridization between different species of animals and plants. This is a form of genetic modification only that it is being done differently. Humans have controlled and altered the nature in many ways which include irrigation, creation of concrete river banks and execution of many sanitization projects. Therefore, the belief that genetic engineering works like God by creating new species does not seem appropriate.
Ethics behind the Intervention
One of the ethical dilemmas concerning the application of genetic engineering to control diseases spread by mosquitoes is the animal rights concern. The belief that animals have the capacity to experience pain and suffering is one of the concerns that has been raised by the advocates of animal rights (Macer, 2003). If mosquitoes lacked the feelings of pain and suffering, then there would be nothing wrong in modifying their genetic organization as desired. Even if scientists decide to create animals that do not have the capacity to feel pain, it would still amount to the modification of an organism which is considered by many to be morally unethical. It would be like using animals to satisfy our interests without taking their interests into consideration. The problem associated with this argument is whether or not it is right to treat animals only as means to realize the desires of human beings. There are other groups of people in the society who attach more value to particular animals. Some nations use animals as symbols and are therefore against the modification or eradication of such animals.
There are people who have egocentric views and prefer the selection of target vectors for elimination rather than the use of insecticides that would harm all the mosquitoes in the ecosystem. The former method would lead to the elimination of a smaller species in the community while the latter will eradicate large numbers of insects indiscriminately. Apart from those who prefer genetic engineering to the traditional ways of insect control, there are those who do not agree with anything that alters any representative of the ecosystem. Such people believe that human beings should not interfere with the general status of organisms. This is true even though all aspects of human activities modify the ecosystem both directly and indirectly.
One of the recognized aspects of ethical principles is the subject of autonomy. This means the freedom to choose to agree or disagree to be used as experimental subjects. While conducting their research to confirm whether the modified mosquitoes are capable of transmitting illnesses, human subjects are required to confirm the tests. All the participants should be allowed to give their consent since the intervention has a potential to expose them to danger. The modified mosquito could expose them to some diseases other than the one transmitted by the original vector. The scientists did not manage to get the consent of their research subjects especially those living in developing countries. The creators of the genetically modified mosquitoes, therefore, did not adhere to the ethics of research because they used their subjects without their informed consent.
Even if it were possible to obtain the informed consent of all the individuals living in the area of study, there would still be a few who would not agree to the intervention. The issue arises regarding how to conduct the research without affecting the individuals who are against it. It is even more difficult because those people who are opposed to the proposal cannot be moved from their houses to other areas during the whole research period.
In areas where it is impossible to get the informed consent of each and every individual, a referendum can be conducted. While this seems to be the best way to solve the problem of getting consent, the wishes of the minority who are opposed to the intervention cannot be satisfied. Another problem is that some communities do not have what it takes to conduct the polls and choose to either give their consent or refuse the proposal of the scientists. Releasing the modified vector regardless of the consent of people will be unfair to the people who do not accept it and if there arises any health problem in the community, everyone will be affected.
The controversy related to this topic is the potential damage the experiments can cause to the environment. Most people value the environment and do not agree to the release of any organism that can harm the rest of the organisms that live in the same ecosystem. The release of genetically modified mosquitoes can cause damage to the other members of the ecosystem especially humans because they feed on human blood. The genetic modification could transform them into more dangerous species than their original forms. They can even serve as vectors for other unknown illnesses. Many people value the environment so much that they would rather lose their lives than allow someone to damage their sacred places.
The release of the genetically engineered mosquitoes is associated with many risks including health and ecological risks, and other significant environmental hazards. Some individuals have expressed worries the DNA could be transferred to other organisms that were not targeted by the intervention which could result in the ecological disturbance within the ecosystem of insects (Macer, 2003). Some cultures also maintain that it is important to preserve the natural flora and fauna without changing anything about their existence. Not so many people are concerned about insects though, as most people care about the larger mammals and not sentient organisms such as insects.
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The risks posed by the release of the genetically modified vectors into the environment should also be addressed depending on their influence on agriculture. The reason for this is that the modified vectors could transmit animal diseases which would greatly affect agriculture. Apart from the animals that are being reared by the farmers, there are wild animals which deserve the right to be left to live in peace in their natural environment without introducing any changes that could harm them. The issue should, therefore, be understood in a broader sense to include the impact it will have on the health status of the community and also the ecological impact it will have on other animals other than humans (Macer, 2003).
If some people are against the intervention because they perceive it as likely to cause more harm than good, there will be lack of equality in accessing information, therapy, and prevention of diseases. There are people who can get the necessary information from the internet, but there are also people who do not have access to internet services in their communities or do not know how to use internet services to obtain information. Such people will be locked out.
The issue of inequality will be solved if the intervention is carried out. This is because the genetically modified organisms will be released to the entire community regardless of the social status and class. The only factors that will be considered here are geographical and geo-biological characteristics of a particular location (Macer, 2003). Releasing genetically modified mosquitoes will ensure that all members of the society benefit from the intervention rather than what would happen if pesticides were applied to a particular location or if treated bed nets were distributed amongst the community members. In cases where bed nets are spread, the rich tend to benefit more than the poor and even if pesticides were to be sprayed in specific location, it would be done in the localities of the rich men. If the modified organisms are to be clustered in a particular area, they will not choose where they will group themselves. They will either gather in the productive areas or the poor areas depending on the surrounding conditions.
Getting consent to perform a trial will meet a lot of resistance especially from the elite of the society. According to Macer (2003) they will use statements such as not in my backyard. For such individuals, it is easy to stop the scientists from performing trials in their localities which as they perceive are associated with more risks than benefits for the environment and themselves. The poor may not have much to say concerning the trial, but it is the responsibility of the researchers to ensure that the risks associated with the trials and the benefits of their interventions are shared equally by the members of the society.
The question of whether or not to release genetically modified mosquitoes to the environment remains largely dependent on public opinion and the ethical aspect of the intervention. Research needs to be conducted to collect information about what the general public thinks about the use of genetically modified pathogen, microbes or vectors to prevent illnesses. Most researchers have been able to learn what the public thinks about the introduction of genetically modified plants, but little effort has yet been directed to carrying out research on what people think about modifying insects and other living organisms within the ecosystem. If I were to give my opinion, I think it would be more beneficial to use the genetically modified species of mosquitoes to eradicate the disease-transmitting vectors in the ecosystem. After all, the primary aim of the intervention is to improve the health of human beings and prevent suffering.