|(Natural News) To most Americans who care about the long-term survival of our country and our way of life, Communist China represents the most direct and dangerous threat since the Soviet Union. Armed with a growing arsenal of accurate nuclear missiles, an increasingly formidable military, and a growing economy, this country of some 1.4 billion…|
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|(Natural News) Many people often experience a sensitivity or intolerance to the lactose content found in dairy milk. Others may even suffer from allergic reactions from drinking cow’s milk. The good news is that dairy milk doesn’t have to be your only milk option when it comes to your cooking and baking needs. Coconut milk…|
One commonly cited reason for claiming a religious vaccine exemption has to do with the fact that some vaccines are made using aborted fetal cell lines. As reported in an April 26, 2019, article in Christianity Today:1
“For certain Christians, the decision of whether to vaccinate comes down to the origins of the vaccines themselves. Some pro-life parents cite a moral disgust and a deep lament over the use of 58-year-old aborted fetal cell lines in development for several recommended immunizations, including MMR (measles, mumps, and rubella) and chickenpox …
The fetal cells that disturb parents … originate from material procured from two abortions that took place in the 1960s … For immunizations to work, they require the virus to be hosted in a living cell.
Cell biologist Leonard Hayflick, working at the Wistar Institute in Philadelphia, reasoned that fetal cells would be protected from outside pathogens and the ‘cleanest’ type to use in vaccines.
He partnered with a Swedish scientist to procure the fetal tissue from an elective abortion in a country where it was legal … Vaccine-makers still use the cell lines called WI-38 today.
These fetal cells from the “Mrs. X” abortion were used to grow weakened or inactive viruses in the development of two vaccines: the rubella vaccine (the R in the MMR vaccine) and one version of rabies vaccine …
Around the same time, the British Medical Council in the UK also produced vaccines from fetal lung cells. Using cells procured through an abortion in 1966, a culture called MRC-5, they created vaccines for hepatitis A, chickenpox, and shingles. A polio vaccine was also made and used in other countries but not the U.S.”
An Ethical Dilemma for Many of Faith
Vaccine manufacturing is not dependent on the ongoing procurement of aborted fetal tissue, and the Catholic Church issued a statement2 in 2005 assuring Catholics that by getting vaccinated they are not “cooperating in evil.”
Yet the idea of injecting themselves or their children with a substance manufactured using aborted fetal cells still makes some Christians, Jews, Muslims and those of other faiths or personal beliefs feel morally uneasy.3 Pro-vaccine advocates and most agnostics have a hard time comprehending why though. As reported by Christianity Today:4
“National Institute of Health director Francis Collins suggests comparing it to organ donation after a child was shot. ‘There was a terrible, evil loss of life of that child and yet I think we would all say that if the parents decided and they wanted something good to come of this and gave their consent, that’s a noble and honorable action,’ he said.
‘Does that translate into a parent, after going through a pregnancy termination, deciding that they would like the fetal tissue to actually help somebody?’”
However, the article points out that the consent issue actually presents a second ethical dilemma rather than solving the first.
Since the fetal tissues were obtained in an era before medical informed consent really became the norm, there’s no guarantee either that the two women gave such consent, or understood that their fetuses’ cell lines would be used to create injectable vaccines for decades to come. An article on Patheos.com also discusses this issue, displaying the typical intolerance:5
“Here’s what confuses me. People are allowed to donate organs. Parents can even donate their children’s organs. We typically see this as a good thing …
Those two abortions were not performed to obtain fetal tissues for vaccines. They were elective abortions that would have been performed regardless of scientists’ interest in using fetal cells … for developing vaccines.
I understand that abortion opponents see those two abortions as murder. But you know what? When a child or an adult is murdered, their organs can still be donated … If the child is dead either way, why not donate their organs? …
I’ve heard some suggest that vaccines contain residual fetal DNA. Even if that is the case, why would that be so different from cases where someone receives a heart transplant, or a kidney transplant? … Or what about a blood transfusion?”
Is Using Animal Cells a Morally Superior Choice?
Clearly, this issue is far from cut and dry, but I think it’s important to at least try to empathize with another person’s point of view. The author of the Patheos article concludes that, most likely, the religious objection to vaccines made with fetal cells has more to do with the “ick factor,” opposed to the sentiment that it’s tissue obtained from murder and therefore immoral to partake in.
However, that is conjecture as many individuals have deeply held religious beliefs opposing abortion and use of aborted fetal tissue for scientific research or other purposes.
Today, many other types of cells are used as growth mediums during vaccine production, and many of those raise moral issues as well. Vaccine growth mediums include6 animal cell strains from chickens, dogs, monkeys, hamsters7 and insects,8 as well as cells from bacteria or yeast.
As just one example, the flu vaccine Flucelvax, introduced in 2014, is grown in kidney cells from dogs.9 Bovine serum (from cow’s blood) is also used for some vaccine components, and trace amounts may remain in the vaccine.10 The use of animal cells doesn’t entirely solve the moral dilemma for all religious faiths though. As noted by Christianity Today:11
“There is a subset of the Christian opposition to vaccines that also takes issue with certain animal cells used in medical research, citing concerns over Levitical guidelines on animals and blood products …”
Other Reasons to Question Human Fetal Cell Line Vaccines
Regardless of whether you believe the use of fetal cells from abortions in vaccine production is morally reprehensible or completely justified, there may be other reasons to object to being coerced or compelled to use vaccines — or give your children vaccines — that were made using human fetal tissue cells.
According to a study published in the September 2014 issue of the Journal of Public Health and Epidemiology,12 rates of autism strongly correlate with the introduction of vaccines using human fetal cell lines.
Three vaccines in particular were found to be significantly correlated with autism: MMR, varicella (chickenpox) and hepatitis A vaccines. According to the study authors, autism rates rose sharply each time one of these vaccines was released. As reported in this paper:13
“The children vaccinated with MMRII, Varicella and Hepatitis A vaccines varied from 19 to 35 months of age at the time of vaccination. Autistic disorder birth year change points were identified as 1980.9, 1988.4 and 1996 for the US, 1987 for UK, 1990.4 for Western Australia, and 1987.5 for Denmark.
Change points in these countries corresponded to introduction of or increased doses of human fetal cell line-manufactured vaccines … Further, linear regression revealed that Varicella and Hepatitis A immunization coverage was significantly correlated to autistic disorder cases. R software was used to calculate change points.
Autistic disorder change points years are coincident with introduction of vaccines manufactured using human fetal cell lines, containing fetal and retroviral contaminants, into childhood vaccine regimens.
This pattern was repeated in the US, UK, Western Australia and Denmark. Thus, rising autistic disorder prevalence is directly related to vaccines manufactured utilizing human fetal cells.”
Part of the problem has to do with what’s called “insertional mutagenesis,” where DNA mutations are created via a viral vector, either naturally or intentionally.14 Indeed, a U.S. Food and Drug Administration Powerpoint presentation15 from 2005 discusses the history of cell-substrate DNA in biological products and some of the “perceived safety issues associated with DNA.” As reported by Global Research in September 2014:16
“… Dr. Theresa Deisher, lead scientist and SCPI founder noted that, ‘Not only are the human fetal contaminated vaccines associated with autistic disorder throughout the world, but also with epidemic childhood leukemia and lymphomas’ …
Instead of conducting safety studies [the U.S. Food and Drug Administration] regulated the amount of human DNA that could be present in a vaccine to no greater than 10ng17 … Deisher’s team discovered that the fetal DNA levels ranged anywhere from 142ng – 2000ng per dose, way beyond the so-called ‘safe’ level.
‘There are a large number of publications about the presence of HERV (human endogenous retrovirus — the only re-activatable endogenous retrovirus) and its association with childhood lymphoma,’ noted Dr. Deisher.
‘The MMR II and chickenpox vaccines and indeed all vaccines that were propagated or manufactured using the fetal cell line WI-38 are contaminated with this retrovirus. And both parents and physicians have a right to know this!’”
Infected Monkey Cells Linked to Human Cancer Cases
In 2002, the journal Lancet18 published evidence showing polio vaccine contaminated with SV40, a monkey virus, was responsible for up to half of the 55,000 non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma cases that were occurring each year.
I wrote about this in “The ‘Vaccine Shock’ of the Year.” The puzzle began in 1994, when Dr. Michele Carbone, a Loyola University researcher, found the virus SV40, which had never before been detected in humans, in half of the human lung tumors he was studying.
Within a couple of years, SV40 had also been implicated in other cancers. As noted in a 2004 review19 of the then-available evidence:
“Persuasive evidence now indicates that SV40 is causing infections in humans today and represents an emerging pathogen. A meta-analysis of molecular, pathological, and clinical data from 1,793 cancer patients indicates that there is a significant excess risk of SV40 associated with human primary brain cancers, primary bone cancers, malignant mesothelioma, and non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma.”
At first no one could fathom how the virus had been transmitted into the human population. But in a videotaped interview (above), the late Dr. Maurice Hilleman — a world-renowned vaccine pioneer who developed more than three dozen vaccines and developed Merck’s vaccine program — admitted Merck’s responsibility in unleashing this virus via their polio vaccine, which was made by growing the poliovirus in kidney cells from rhesus monkeys.20
How Skeptics Skew the Truth and Misrepresent Science
On a side note, were you to do an online search for the SV40-cancer link, you’ll find plenty of “fact-checkers” who claim that none of this is true — that SV40 is not connected with cancer at all, and that the idea has been “totally debunked.”
As “proof,” they’ll often furnish a quote from the Institute of Medicine’s October 2002 summary report,21 which says, “Although SV40 has biological properties consistent with a cancer-causing virus, it has not been conclusively established whether it might have caused cancer in humans.”
However, there’s more in that report. The “debunkers” are counting on you not wanting to pay the $30.99 fee to read the whole report, which sheds more light on the cancer connection. The good news is you don’t have to buy the report see what’s in it, as the information is included in a publicly available, free document, “Research on SV40 Exposure and the Development of Cancer.”22
This document is a transcript of testimony by Dr. James Goedert, then chief of the National Cancer Institute’s viral epidemiology branch, given before the Congressional House Committee on Government Reform on September 10, 2003.
In it, Goedert quotes the IOM’s study verbatim, which actually says the “evidence is inadequate to reject a causal relationship between SV40-containing polio vaccines and cancer.” Goedert further adds:
“The committee stated that the ‘biological evidence is of moderate strength that SV40 exposure could lead to cancer in humans under natural conditions’ and that ‘biological evidence is of moderate strength that SV40 exposure from the polio vaccine is related to SV40 infection in humans.’”
In other words, the IOM could not find enough evidence to say SV40 in polio vaccines doesn’t cause cancer. In fact, they found moderately strong evidence that it might, which is the exact opposite of what the so-called fact-checkers would like you to believe.
More Science Needed to Find Risks of Viral DNA Sequences
It has remained a contentious issue, for sure. As noted in the 2006 paper, “SV40 and Human Cancer: A Review of Recent Data”:23
“The debate on the possible adverse effects of SV40 for humans has been contentious. High rates of recovery of SV40 DNA sequences from cancer tissues have led some investigators to propose that SV40 infection may have a role in the development of mesothelioma, brain tumors, osteosarcoma and NHL [non?Hodgkin lymphoma].
Other investigators have not been able to confirm the presence of SV40 sequences in the tumors and have been skeptical about the role of SV40 in human cancers.”
A 2010 Virology Blog post24 also summarizes some of the history of SV40 and the evidence for and against it being capable of causing human cancers. That said, the SV40 issue aptly illustrates the potential hazards of using animal or human cells as growth medium for vaccine viruses.
Another example of the same concept was the rotavirus vaccine Rotarix, which in 2010 was temporarily suspended25,26 after being found to be contaminated with “a substantial amount” of DNA from the porcine circovirus.27 RotaTeq was also found to contain the DNA fragments. In the end, the FDA declared both vaccines were safe to use.28
Similarly, Judy Mikovitz, Ph.D., has warned about the presence of retroviruses in vaccines and their link to chronic fatigue syndrome, autism and other diseases. To learn more, see my 2018 interview with her.
Contentious Embryonic Research Continues
The fact that some have religiously based objections to the use of human and/or animal cells in vaccine manufacturing is perhaps more understandable when you consider that embryonic research has always been, and continues to be a contentious issue with many moral and ethical implications.
For example, a July 2018 article29 in Nature addressed novel research in which scientists are pushing the boundary on how long they can grow a human embryo in the lab. In this case, the embryos used were collected for in vitro fertilization but were no longer needed and had been offered up for scientific research.
The team, led by developmental biologist Magdalena Zernicka-Goetz, let the embryos grow for 13 days — far longer than had ever been done before, and just shy of the 14-day cutoff for embryonic experimentation. As reported by Nature:30
“[N]ew high-resolution, digital images are revealing in fine detail how muscles and nerves grow a few weeks later in development. Such discoveries could lead to a better understanding of how birth defects and developmental disorders arise, as well as why some pregnancies fail.
But alongside their promise, these new techniques are pushing researchers into uncharted ethical territory. Beginning in the late 1970s, ethicists and scientists converged on the ‘14-day rule’, which limits work on human embryos to a fortnight after fertilization — a time when the first hints of the nervous system appear, and the last point at which an embryo can divide …
The researchers showed that with the right cocktail of growth factors and nourishment, human embryos in culture can ‘implant’ onto the bottom of the dish. Remarkably, the embryos didn’t require any maternal tissue to trigger the early remodelling steps that occur after implantation …
As the results of this research accumulate, the technical advances are inspiring a mixture of fascination and unease among scientists. Both are valuable reactions, says [bioethicist Josephine] Johnston.
‘That feeling of wonder and awe reminds us that this is the earliest version of human beings and that’s why so many people have moral misgivings,’ she says. ‘It reminds us that this is not just a couple of cells in a dish.’”
Synthetic Embryos Created From Human Stem Cells
Other scientists, in an effort to push past the 14-day threshold, are creating synthetic embryos from human stem cells.31 These synthetic structures are not covered by the two-week rule, allowing them to examine embryonic development far longer.
They may eventually also be used in drug trials,32 to evaluate a drug’s effect on fetal development, which could help determine whether a drug is safe for use during pregnancy.
According to Nature,33 “These constructs lack certain components essential for full development, and couldn’t give rise to a human if implanted.” Still, that hasn’t prevented ethical concerns from arising. Martin Pera, a stem-cell biologist at The Jackson Laboratory in Bar Harbor, Maine told Nature,34 “I think it really is a gray area. How do we regard these structures that are developing?”
While the general view is that synthetic “embryoids” — developed solely for study and not for implantation — are “too simplistic” to raise ethical concerns, others disagree.
Among them, bioethicist Insoo Hyun at Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland, Ohio, who pointed out that correctly defining the exact features that would make a synthetic embryo too close to the real McCoy is a tremendous challenge.
He told Nature,35 “The potential is there for something to be constructed that’s much further along than 14 days, and that could develop if you were to implant it into the uterus.”
A September 11, 2019, article in Nature continues this conversation, pointing out that the latest scientific advances allow synthetic embryos to develop to the point they develop what’s called “the primitive streak” — a band of thick epiblast that stretches from the cranial to the caudal end of the embryo.
With the emergence of the primitive streak,36 it’s possible to distinguish the top and bottom (the future head and anus) of the embryo, and according to Nature, “some people consider this to be when an embryo becomes an individual human being.”
Zernicka-Goetz told Nature37 “We will have to confront ourselves with the question of what is a human embryo, and whether these models really have the potential to develop into one.”
The technology does raise a number of debatable questions. Is the creation of synthetic embryos a justifiable means for every end? Should they be allowed to be grown like fake meat? Will synthetic embryos eventually be used in vaccine production? If so, would moral questions still remain?
As for the use of natural embryos and fetal cells, should people just “get over” the “yuck” factor — or their deeply held moral and religious beliefs — regardless of how the cells used in scientific experiments and vaccine production were obtained? And does the end (more consistent vaccine production) justify the means (the use of “the earliest version of human beings”) to advance scientific knowledge and develop commercial products?
North American birds are in peril with 29% of U.S. and Canadian bird populations having been lost since 1970. In a finding researchers called “staggering,”1 ornithologists analyzed decades of data from multiple and independent monitoring networks to estimate bird populations.2
A net loss of 2.9 billion birds occurred over the last 48 years,3 including not only rare species but also common birds at backyard feeders, such as sparrows, warblers, finches and blackbirds.4
Nineteen common bird species lost more than 50 million birds during the study period, with lead author and conservation scientist Ken Rosenberg telling CBS News, “We expected to see continuing declines of threatened species. But for the first time, the results also showed pervasive losses among common birds across all habitats, including backyard birds … There’s an erosion of the numbers of common birds.”5
Audubon Society Declares a ‘Bird Emergency’
Bird losses aren’t necessarily obvious, as there are still many birds in the environment. However, 12 bird families accounted for 90% of the bird declines, including among such familiar species as red-winged blackbirds, dark-eyed juncos and meadowlarks.
“There are still a lot of birds out there,” Rosenberg told The Atlantic. “If you have a lot of birds coming to your feeder and they’re reduced by 30 percent, you might not see that. This loss of abundance can be happening right under our noses.”6
Thirty-one species of grassland birds were studied, for instance, with numbers down by 720 million, or 53%, since 1970.7 Species of shorebirds, including sanderlings and plovers, declined by about 33%.8 While the loss of more common birds such as sparrows may not be as sensational as losses of iconic species like bald eagles, their absence will still send ripples throughout the entire ecosystem.
In fact, Gerardo Ceballos, conservation biologist at the National Autonomous University of Mexico in Mexico City, told CBS News, “When you lose a common species, the impact will be much more massive on the ecosystem and ecosystem services.”9
In addition to the population trajectories and size estimates indicating that nearly 3 billion birds have been lost since 1970, the study used a continent-wide weather radar network to determine that the mass of migratory birds has also dropped significantly — by13% — from 2007 to 2017, particularly among birds migrating along the eastern U.S.10
Birds are a vital part of the environment, acting as pollinators and pest controllers and helping to disperse seeds that help forests to grow. David Yarnold, president and CEO of National Audubon Society, called the losses a “bird emergency.” He stated in a news release:11
“The connection between birds and humans is undeniable — we share the same fate. This is a bird emergency with a clear message: the natural world humans depend on is being paved, logged, eroded and polluted. You don’t need to look hard for the metaphor: birds are the canaries in the coal mine that is the earth’s future.”
Why Are Birds Vanishing?
The study revealed a host of sobering statistics, like the fact that there are 93 million fewer white-throated sparrows today than there were in 1970, while 2 in 5 barn swallows have also been lost. Overall, 1 in 4 birds are gone, including 2.5 billion migratory birds.12 Some of the other worst losses since 1970 include:13
- 9 in 10 evening grosbeaks
- 500 million boreal forest birds
- 3 in 4 Eastern meadowlarks
- 170 million Eastern forest birds
- 160 million aerial insectivores
While the exact causes of the declines go beyond the scope of this study, the scientists concluded, “The disappearance of even common species indicates a general shift in our ecosystems’ ability to support basic birdlife.”14 Habitat loss was singled out as the greatest overall driver of bird declines, followed by habitat degradation.
Habitat loss refers to instances when land is converted for other uses, such as agriculture or development. When habitat is degraded, it may not disappear entirely but becomes altered, fragmented or compromised in a way that makes it less able to support bird life.
Since the early 1800s, grasslands in North America have decreased by 79% — and in some areas by 99.9%,15 largely to plant vast swaths of chemically intensive genetically engineered (GE) corn and soy.
Pesticides were also mentioned as causing both direct and indirect threats to birds. Not only do these chemicals contribute to bird poisonings but they also reduce the number of insects and other sources of food for birds. The number of birds harmed by pesticides is difficult to put numbers on, the study noted, but a study by Environment Canada in 2013 suggested agricultural pesticides may lead to 2.7 million bird losses annually.16
Birds exposed to widely used neurotoxic pesticides called neonicotinoids were also found to feed less, accumulate less body mass and fat stores and ultimately delay migration, which can affect survival and reproduction.17 Aside from habitat loss and pesticide usage, some of the additional threats to birds include:
Insect Extinction Also Underway
Like birds, insects are declining at a dramatic rate, according to a scientific review, and modern-day agriculture is largely to blame. Worldwide, more than 40% of insect species are threatened with extinction in the next few decades.18
Lepidoptera, insects that include butterflies and moths, hymenoptera, which are insects that include bees, and dung beetles are those most at risk on land. As for aquatic insects, those most affected include those in the odonatan order (dragonflies and damselflies), along with plecoptera (stoneflies), trichoptera (caddisflies) and ephemeroptera (mayflies).
Overall, the total mass of insects is said to be falling by a “shocking” 2.5% a year. If this rate continues unchecked, insects could disappear within 100 years. “It is very rapid. In 10 years you will have a quarter less, in 50 years only half left and in 100 years you will have none,” study author Francisco Sánchez-Bayo, at the University of Sydney, Australia, told The Guardian.19
As with birds, the researchers cited compelling evidence that agricultural intensification is the main driver of population declines in birds, small mammals and insects. In order of importance, habitat loss due to land converted to intensive agriculture, as well as urbanization, are major problems. The next most significant contributor is pollution, primarily that from synthetic pesticides and fertilizers.
The Green Revolution Looks Pretty Dark
The Green Revolution sounds beneficial but it actually describes the conversion of natural, traditional farming — when all food was grown organically in concert with nature and surrounding ecosystems — to a system dependent on chemicals and industry.
The Rockefeller Foundation funded the Green Revolution that led to the introduction of petroleum-based agricultural chemicals, which quickly transformed agriculture, both in the U.S. and abroad. Monoculture was the outcome, with a focus on monocrops, i.e., growing acre upon acre of only one crop at a time. The very definition of monoculture is a system of agriculture with very little diversity.
It defines the wide swaths of corn and soy being grown across the U.S. and worldwide, a significant portion of which is, in turn, fed to animals being raised on CAFOs (concentrated animal feeding operations). The massive loss of birds, which mirrors similar declines in other creatures such as insects, is a wake-up call that the future of the Green Revolution looks very dark — unless changes are urgently made.
The featured study’s co-author Peter Marra, director of the Georgetown Environment Initiative, told CBS News, “This is being caused entirely by humans. Habitat loss, which is the primary driver here, is a human-caused issue.”
The light at the end of the tunnel is biodynamic, regenerative agriculture, which is a savior to birds, insects and other species worldwide. A change from industrial agriculture to organic farming led to increases in the abundance and diversity of moths, for instance, and organic farms have been found to have an overall higher insect abundance than conventional farms.20,21
Further, in bird and habitat surveys of 45 sites in Wales, very few species were found on intensively managed sites, while those with unimproved grassland or improved grassland were found to be important for a variety of species.22
This is why, on an individual level, the best course of action to reduce the harm industrial agriculture and habitat loss is having on birds is to support biodynamic, grass fed farms that are conserving diversity and not relying on synthetic chemicals and other intensive agriculture practices.
Seven Simple Actions to Help Birds
In addition to supporting regenerative agriculture, there are simple actions you can take to make a difference for birds. The Audubon’s Yarnold noted:23
“Since the 1970’s, we’ve lost three billion of America’s birds. This is a full-blown crisis that requires political leadership as well as mass individual action. We have to act now to protect the places we know birds rely on.
Places like the Arctic Refuge, Great Lakes, Everglades, and Colorado River must be a priority. From the newest Audubon members to the most tenured Senators, we all can act today to protect birds and the places they need.”
3 Billion Birds, a partnership between Audubon, American Bird Conservancy, Bird Conservancy of the Rockies, Georgetown Environment Initiative, The Cornell Lab of Ornithology and Smithsonian, suggests everyone take the following seven simple actions to help birds now, before their populations decline even further:24
1. Make windows safer — Install screens or break up reflections using film, paint or string to prevent birds from hitting your windows.
2. Keep cats indoors — Free-roaming cats kill birds; give your cat environmental enrichment by providing a catio, a secure outdoor enclosure where your cat can enjoy the outdoors without harming birds.
3. Reduce your lawn, plant native plants instead — Lawns do little to support birds, while native plants sustain birds and provide shelter and nesting areas.
4. Avoid pesticides — They’re toxic to birds and reduce insects, which birds rely on for food; avoid using pesticides in your home and garden and choose organic or biodynamic food produced without pesticides.
5. Choose shade-grown coffee — Sun-grown coffee contributes to forest destruction and requires pesticides and fertilizers; shade-grown coffee preserves forests and helps migratory birds survive the winter.
6. Avoid plastic — Plastic is polluting oceans and harming wildlife, including seabirds; avoid all forms of single-use plastics, including bags, bottles, straws, disposable utensils and wraps.
7. Watch birds and share — Monitoring birds is important to protect them. According to 3 Billion Birds, “The world’s most abundant bird, the passenger pigeon, went extinct, and people didn’t realize how quickly it was vanishing until it was too late.”25
Researchers need help from citizen scientists to monitor birds in their own communities and report on what they see. A number of projects are underway, including Project FeederWatch and a Christmas Bird Count, so you can get involved watching birds in your own backyard.
The U.S. Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA), a research agency of the U.S. Department of Defense, is funding research into the use of insects as vectors for viral dispersal. The program, dubbed “Insect Allies,” has received $27 million in funding so far toward the development of genetically engineered (GE) viruses capable of gene editing crops in the field.1
While the program is being hailed as a way to release crop-protecting insects that could save agricultural fields from pests, drought or pollution, thereby guarding the food supply, researchers suggest the technology could easily be misused and turned into a new bioweapon system.
What Is the Insect Allies Program?
Insect Allies is a $45 million, four-year program that was launched in 2016.2 Insects such as leafhoppers, whiteflies and aphids are being used to carry GE viruses intended to quickly act on plants that are already growing in fields. This would, theoretically at least, give farmers the ability to alter the genetic properties of their crops in order to respond to changes in the environment in real-time. As DARPA put it:3
“National security can be quickly jeopardized by naturally occurring threats to the crop system, including pathogens, drought, flooding, and frost, but especially by threats introduced by state or non-state actors. Insect Allies seeks to mitigate the impact of these incursions by applying targeted therapies to mature plants with effects that are expressed at relevant timescales — namely, within a single growing season.”
So far, all work is being conducted inside closed laboratories, greenhouses and “other secured facilities,” according to DARPA, which said it is not funding open release of the insects carrying GE viruses.4 The purpose is publically stated as being intended for routine agricultural use, with corn and tomato plants reportedly among the first crops being used in experiments.5
However, public debate about the consequences of using GE viruses to modify plants, not to mention releasing insects to freely carry them, is conspicuously lacking. If, in fact, the Insect Allies program is truly aimed at farming, there would need to be changes to the approval of genetically modified organisms (GMOs) and changes in the way farmers operate on a large scale.
The public and environment at large would also be affected by the release of insect vectors carrying GE viruses, necessitating additional safety studies and debate.
Yet, as Guy Reeves of the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Biology in Plön, stated, “There is hardly any public debate about the far-reaching consequences of proposing the development of this technology. The Insect Allies programme is largely unknown, even in expert circles.”6
Insect Allies as Weapons for Biological Warfare?
In a policy forum on dual-use research published in the journal Science, five European scientists sounded an alarm that DARPA’s “agricultural research” could easily be perceived as an effort to “develop biological agents for hostile purposes and their means of delivery.”7
This would be a breach of the Biological Weapons Convention, which prohibits parties from developing or producing agents that have no peaceful purposes.
“Because of the broad ban of the Biological Weapons Convention, any biological research of concern must be plausibly justified as serving peaceful purposes. The Insect Allies Program could be seen to violate the Biological Weapons Convention, if the motivations presented by DARPA are not plausible.
This is particularly true considering that this kind of technology could easily be used for biological warfare,” Silja Vöneky, a law professor from Freiburg University, told The Max Planck Society, a German research organization.8
Reeves, one of the authors of the Science article, also stated, “It is very much easier to kill or sterilize a plant using gene editing than it is to make it herbicide or insect-resistant,”9 adding further support that Insect Allies could easily be manipulated into weapons. The first problem noted by the researchers is the technology’s use of horizontal gene transfer. They noted:10
“Agricultural genetic technologies typically achieve their agronomic aims by introducing laboratory-generated modifications into target species’ chromosomes. However, the speed and flexibility of this approach are limited, because modified chromosomes must be vertically inherited from one generation to the next.
In an effort to remove this limitation, an ongoing research program funded by the U.S. Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) aims to disperse infectious genetically modified viruses that have been engineered to edit crop chromosomes directly in fields.
This is genetic engineering through horizontal transfer, as opposed to vertical inheritance. The regulatory, biological, economic, and societal implications of dispersing such horizontal environmental genetic alteration agents (HEGAAs) into ecosystems are profound.”
Further, if DARPA is to be believed that the insect-carried GE viruses are being studied for use in farming, there are some glaring omissions.
“In the context of the stated aims of the DARPA program, it is our opinion that the knowledge to be gained from this program appears very limited in its capacity to enhance U.S. agriculture or respond to national emergencies (in either the short or long term),” the researchers explained, adding:11
“[T]here has been an absence of adequate discussion regarding the major practical and regulatory impediments toward realizing the projected agricultural benefits.
As a result, the program may be widely perceived as an effort to develop biological agents for hostile purposes and their means of delivery, which—if true—would constitute a breach of the Biological Weapons Convention (BWC).”
Problems With Releasing GE-Virus-Carrying Insects
In an interview with The Max Planck Society, Reeves explained the serious consequence that could occur if GE viruses were released into the environment. Viruses, he noted, can have a rapid effect, affecting an entire population within a single generation.12 Further, it’s difficult to predict with confidence which species viruses are capable of infecting.
Releasing infections GMOs should only be done “after very careful consideration,” he stated, and if there are alternatives “in most circumstances it may not make sense to use viral methods whose risks will be difficult to control.”13 Using insects as the vector only amplifies the risks and uncertainties; the unpredictable nature of nature is the only guarantee.
“It would have been perfectly possible for the DARPA work program to have proposed the development of HEGAAs to be deployed using agricultural spraying equipment,” the researchers noted, “without the involvement of insects.”14
In response to the featured Science article, other experts have raised additional risks to be addressed, including what would happen if other species consumed the insects carrying the GE viruses, and how the GE viruses would interact with other viruses, bacteria and fungi being carried by the insects.15
Further, insects will not be able to distinguish between conventional crops and certified organic crops, which do not permit genetic engineering. There would be no way for organic farmers to keep these insect vectors from altering their crops, which could destroy organic farming, or worse.
In addition to calling for increased transparency from DARPA, the Science authors noted that the Insect Allies Program could lead other countries to begin developing their own versions of infectious GE viruses. According to The Max Planck Society:16
“The authors of the Science article are also concerned that the Insect Allies Program might encourage other states to increase their own research activities in this field — regardless of whether this program proves to be technically successful or not.
Past efforts for banning the development of biological weapons have shown how important it is that this ban be applied by states such as the USA, who are considered an example by other countries. Based on this, the authors propose that the US should make proactive efforts to avoid any suspicion of engaging technologies that have the alarming potential for use in biological warfare.”
GE Mosquitoes Highlight the Unpredictable Nature of Nature
It’s impossible to predict what could happen if insects carrying infectious GE viruses are intentionally released. Even in circumstances that are supposed to be carefully controlled with multiple fail safes in place, nature often finds a way around them. Such is the case with Oxitec’s GE mosquitoes, which were created in an attempt to control mosquito-borne diseases like yellow fever, dengue, chikungunya and Zika.
The male Aedes aegypti mosquitoes were genetically engineered to carry a “genetic kill switch,” such that when they mate with wild female mosquitoes, their offspring inherit the lethal gene and cannot survive or reproduce in the wild.
Except, the GE mosquitoes have already been released in Brazil, and researchers monitoring the project have found the GE genes have crossed with wild mosquitoes — despite the company’s assurances that this wouldn’t happen.
In a press release from Yale, senior study author Jeffrey Powell, professor of ecology and evolutionary biology, noted, “The claim was that genes from the release strain would not get into the general population because offspring would die … That obviously was not what happened.”17
When analyzed six, 12 and 27 to 30 months after release, the researchers found “clear evidence that portions of the transgenic strain genome have been incorporated into the target population.”18
In lab tests up to 4% of OX513A, as they’re known, offspring, which were the result of matings between OX513A and wild type mosquitoes, did survive into adulthood.19 However, on their website, Oxitec used to state, “After an Oxitec mosquito has successfully mated with a wild female, any offspring that result will not survive to adulthood … ”20
GE Mosquitoes May End Up Creating Heartier Insects
That page has since been taken down, but the company is still touting the “self-limiting gene” that’s supposed to “disappear from the environment.”21 Still, Oxitec has stated that releasing their OX513A mosquitoes may reduce local mosquito populations by 90+%.22,23
It sounds impressive, but the study revealed that, after an initial decline, the mosquito population rebounded about 18 months after the GE mosquitoes were released. Powell suggested the rebound may have occurred because female mosquitoes started to avoid mating with the GE males, a phenomenon that’s also occurred in tests when sterile male mosquitoes were released.
What’s more, the “tri-hybrid population” that’s now been created from the Cuba, Mexican and Brazilian lines are “genetically distinct” and may be even heartier than previous mosquitoes — showing once again the unpredictable nature of nature.24 As with GE mosquitoes, the release of DARPA’s “insect allies” could lead to irrevocable environmental changes on an unprecedented scale.
As Nicholas Evans, a bioethicist at the University of Massachusetts in Lowell, told Science, DARPA needs to answer the question of why Insect Allies are being developed and if they can’t do that, “the question is why scientists are so determined to make what could easily be a breakthrough with very limited utility, but serious safety and security risks.”25
By Anna Von Reitz