Speculative scientific paper drives false media reports on GMO mosquitoes

By Joan Conrow

September 25, 2019

The timing couldn’t have been worse.

Just days after the US Environmental Protection Agency began accepting public comments on Oxitec’s proposal to release genetically modified (GM) mosquitoes in Florida and Texas, a blitz of alarmist GM mosquito reports hit the media.

Most of them were off-base, or flat-out wrong.

They were driven by a paper, published in Scientific Reports, and a news release, issued by Yale University, home of the study’s lead authors, Jeffrey Powell and Benjamin Evans, that included speculative assertions that Oxitec deemed misleading. The paper’s title — “Transgenic Aedes aegypti Mosquitoes Transfer Genes into a Natural Population” — was also concerning, implying that transgenes had been spread, rather than natural traces of background genetics.

As a result, media widely and falsely reported that Oxitec’s work in Brazil had gone awry or failed altogether, resulting in robust, mutant offspring that could affect efforts to control the biting insects. Gizmodo’s headline typified the inaccurate, alarmist reporting: “Genetically Modified Mosquitoes Are Breeding in Brazil, Despite Biotech Firm’s Assurances to the Contrary.”

Anti-GMO groups seized the occasion to further trash the GM mosquito, claiming the modified insects were spreading in the environment, and echoing the study’s own assertion that “these results highlight the importance of having in place a genetic monitoring program during such releases to detect unanticipated outcomes.”

Except none of the outcomes reported in the paper were unanticipated, said Kevin Gorman, head of field operations at Oxitec. And the paper presented nothing that wasn’t already known to both Oxitec and the regulators who had deemed the technology safe.

“Unfortunately, media take these key messages and publish them without any verification,” Gorman said. “Most people won’t see the original paper, just the inflammatory headlines.”

Oxitec cried foul and asked Nature Research, which publishes Scientific Reports, to address the report’s speculative statements. The article now includes an editor’s note stating that the paper’s findings “are subject to criticisms that are being considered by editors.” The company also contacted numerous media outlets, some of which wrote a second story, and it published a lengthy rebuttal on its website.

Still, “this has been misleading to both the public and the wider vector control community, and affects public perception.” Gorman said.

The article also has run into trouble with some of its co-authors, including Margareth Capurro, a professor at the University of Sao Paulo’s Institute of Biomedical Sciences (ICB). She repudiated the journal article, claiming she did not participate in — much less approve — the final publication. Six of the eight Brazilian authors filed for the article’s retraction on Sept. 20 after discovering that the published text was not faithful to the results presented by the group and that the original wording had been changed, according to Capurro.

Powell defended the paper in the wake of Oxitec’s pushback.  “Overall, there has been a lot of misreading of this paper and things attributed to it that simply are not there,” he wrote in an email to the Alliance. “I stand fully by the scientific integrity of the work we report.  No responsible individual has called into question the rigor of the science.”

Oxitec has no quibble with the science, either, which complicates its efforts to correct the misperceptions. Gorman said he has never known a published paper to be withdrawn or revised because of the language that authors use.

“True speculation is where you discuss on both sides of the argument,” Gorman said. “This is just one side, and that’s just bias.”

As an example, Gorman pointed to a line in the news release: “Powell speculated that females had begun to avoid mating with modified males, fueling a rebound in population.”

Powell perpetuated the uncertainty in his comments to media. “The important thing is something unanticipated happened,” he told Science Magazine last week. “When people develop transgenic lines or anything to release, almost all of their information comes from laboratory studies. … Things don’t always work out the way you expect.”

But the paper addressed Oxitec’s field trials, which are intended to give researchers more data than is possible to collect in the lab. And again, none of the results were unanticipated by Oxitec.

The episode has left Oxitec wondering whether the authors juiced up the abstract and press release in a bid to build buzz around a ho hum study, or intentionally sought to mislead readers to advance an anti-GM mosquito agenda.

“The stories the media actually reported demonstrate very effectively what the take-home messages were,” Gorman observed.

Oxitec also raised the issue of bias and conflict of interest, noting that Powell and his co-authors have endorsed non-GM methods of vector control, with Powell publishing a paper that outlined an approach that specifically excludes the use of genetic engineering.

Powell, however, refuted that contention. “I do not have any conflicts of interest and all my co-authors were asked by the journal and none indicated any conflicts.  I am not anti-GMO and fully support genetic approaches to modify mosquito populations in an effort to control diseases they transmit.  Much of my research focuses directly or indirectly on such efforts.”

Ultimately, much of the fault lies with the media, as reporters poorly versed in science and genetics attempt to cover scientific papers and editors write click bait headlines. However, Oxitec thinks that scientists also should consider how their work will be received.

“Authors as well as journalists need be aware, particularly when writing about complex or controversial topics, that they could have a lasting impact,” Gorman said. “Ensuring impartiality and providing absolute clarity to the reader is a responsibility of the authors. Readers rely on scientists and other experts to help them form their opinions.”

Meanwhile, Oxitec and its technology have moved on, making the paper and its associated controversy somewhat moot. The company proposes to use a new strain in its Texas and Florida releases — mosquitoes engineered to carry a gene that kills 100 percent of the females before they reach maturity.

“This makes it very selected and targeted, as females are the only ones that can bite” and thus spread devastating diseases like Zika, malaria and dengue, Gorman said. And since only GM males will be released, there is no chance that transgenic females can survive and breed.

Still, though regulators are aware of these finer points, they are largely lost on the public — particularly those who oppose biotechnology and no doubt will be submitting comments based on misleading headlines around a study that addressed an earlier strain of mosquitoes.

“The EPA has a rigorous, science-driven regulatory approach that is globally considered to be very robust,” Gorman said. “I’d expect them to make their own minds up, and they will. But they do have to take into account public and stakeholder comments. It puts the regulators in a difficult position.”