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Otago GE Wasp Project Violates International Gene Drive Agreement

Professor Dearden, Otago University, has received $11 million from the Ministry of Business, Innovation and Enterprise (MBIE) to engineer wasps using gene drive technology. He is only consulting with Māori and regulators, ignoring and side-lining the views of other concerned New Zealanders.

Gene Drives using gene editing CRISPR (clustered regularly interspaced short palindromic repeat) technology. This genetic engineering causes a permanent modification of the organisms genome, which is passed on to all subsequent generations. Gene drives are designed to impact reproduction or kill the developing larvae. Due to the irreversibility of gene drives, any out-crossing across species could collapse the insect ecosystems affecting pollinators and food security.

The approval of this gene drive application is a worldwide concern, as it overrides the decision on gene drives being considered at a global level through the UN Convention of Biodiversity (CBD). MBIE and researchers at the University of Otago have violated the agreement to work in unison with the international community. International concern has already been raised by the project. [1]

"It is not enough for the Otago University scientists to begin consulting with Māori. The global community has flagged that Gene Drives are an international concern and should not be left to countries to do their own thing," said Jon Carapiet, spokesman for GE-free NZ (in food and environment). SynBiocritics International's Jim Thomas said that the Otago University project has implications for pollinators and biodiversity.

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"The UN expert group is currently discussing the biodiversity threats of gene drives and engineered insects for addressing invasive species" said Jim Thomas, "and here they are engineering pollinators - not very smart."

Wasps are one of the most diverse, comprising of many species insect taxa. Globally, there are 33,000 species across 22 families. New Zealand has thousands of native wasps that are parasitic and act as insect controls. [2] They are found across ecosystems and exhibit diverse evolutionary associations with other organisms. Wasps play an essential ecological and economic role of importance to the health, well-being and nutritional needs of our planet. Brock et al. (2021) found that wasps have a pollinator relationship with up to a thousand plants over a range of habitats. They are also important maintaining biodiversity and have a bio-pest control function [3]

New Zealand representatives at the UN CBD have previously been warned against blocking Gene Drives from being a matter of significance for the global community to consider. [4]

In 2021 Zealand’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade position acknowledged that no scientifically sound data or risk assessment has taken place but did not support a “strong” precautionary principle toward synthetic biology organisms and gene drives.

The Ministry’s position reflects the more commercial views on the claimed benefits of environmental release. This stance appears to prevent risks and scientific uncertainty from being addressed. [5 ]

The Convention on Biodiversity (COP) informal meeting of the Subsidiary Body on Scientific, Technical, and Technological Advice (SBSTTA-24) recognised that synthetic biology and gene drives could have the potential to result in irreversible impacts on biodiversity.

"New Zealand scientists must not go rogue. We must be part of the international community deliberations and not be seen to be pushing ahead against the international concern," said Jon Carapiet, spokesman for GE-free NZ (in food and environment).

[1] https://www.otago.ac.nz/news/newsroom/bringing-an-end-to-the-buzz-should-we-genetically-modify-wasps

[2] https://teara.govt.nz/en/wasps-and-bees

[3] Brock, R.E., Cini, A. and Sumner, S. (2021), Ecosystem services provided by aculeate wasps. Biol Rev, 96: 1645-1675. https://doi.org/10.1111/brv.12719

[4]https://press.gefree.org.nz/press/20211002.htm

[5] https://www.gefree.org.nz/assets/Uploads/R-OIA-27593-Jon-Muller-Requested-Information-Redacted.pdf - MFAT reply to OIA: Synthetic Biology p.32/122.

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