The Resurgence of Infectious Diseases*

Current regulatory guidelines on contained use of GEMs are grossly inadequate, and may have contributed to the extensive horizontal transfer and recombination of virulence and antibiotic resistance genes involved in the recent resurgence of infectious diseases.

A science-based risk assessment would take into account the most comprehensive and up-to-date scientific findings. The transboundary movement of GEMs intended for contained use in commercial plants must be covered by the Biosafety Protocol.

The world is heading for a major crisis in public health in the escalated emergence of drug and antibiotic resistant infectious diseases since commercial scale genetic engineering biotechnology began in the early 1980s.

  • infectious diseases responsible for 1/3 of the 52 million deaths from all causes in the world in 1995.

  • Salmonella infections up 20-fold in some countries in Europe since 1980.

  • E. coli 0157:H7 infections up 10-fold in England and Wales, and 100-fold in Scotland between 1986 to 1996.

  • Staphylococcus infections becoming invulnerable to treatment by all known antibiotics.

The evolution of virulence and the spread of drug and antibiotic resistances are now linked to the extensive horizontal gene transfer and recombination events among bacteria and viruses, many of which may have occurred in recent years.

  • Cholera epidemics in India in 1992 due to new V. cholerae 0139 generated by horizontal gene transfer from non-O1 strain to an earlier pandemic strain 01 EL Tor.

  • E. coli 0157:H7 arose by horizontal gene transfer of Shiga-toxin gene from Shigella.

  • multiple antibiotic resistance generated by horizontal gene transfer and recombination.

The entire orientation of genetic engineering is to enhance horizontal gene transfer and to break down species barriers.

  • It depends on vectors for multiplying and transferring genes made by recombining disease-causing viruses, plamids and transposons which carry and spread virulence and antibiotic resistance genes.

  • Artificial vectors are chimaeric combinations which do not occur in nature.

  • Artificial vectors have increased host ranges and increased tendency for horizontal gene transfer and recombination.

  • Artificial vectors contain antibiotic resistance genes as selectable markers.

  • Antibiotics increase the frequency of horizontal gene transfer 10 to 10000 fold.

Current guidelines are based on old assumptions which have been overturned by recent scientific findings.

  • Crippled laboratory strains of bacteria can survive in the environment.

  • DNA released from dead and living cells persist in the environment and transform other bacteria.

  • DNA resist digestion in the gut.

  • Viral vectors invade mammalian cells

  • Legal limits of "tolerated releases" from contained use vastly exceed the minimum infective dose of some pathogens: 10000 colony forming units/ml. in air or water versus a minimum infective dose of 50 bacteria for E. coli 0157:H7

  • Routine chemical inactivation methods leave up to 10% of viruses and other pathogens in an infective state.

There is a current attempt to relax the guidelines on contained use of GEMs in the European Union. This is an irresponsible move in the light of current scientific knowledge.

* Forthcoming Third World Network Report