Oxitec: Biotech Geniuses, PR Morons

British biotech company Oxitec is
at it again

Some 6000 transgenic mosquitoes developed to help fight dengue were released in Malaysia on 21 December, according to a statement issued by the country’s Institute for Medical Research (IMR) in Kuala Lumpur yesterday. Just like the first releases ever of the mosquitoes, on the Caribbean island of Grand Cayman in 2009 and 2010, the news came as a surprise both to opponents of the insects and to scientists who support them.

As I said in a previous post, I’d classify myself among “scientists who support them,” so I’m chagrined to see that Oxitec still hasn’t figured out the most basic aspects of public relations. Someone needs to tell these guys that there is such a thing as bad publicity, especially when it comes to releasing genetically modified organisms into the wild. Indeed, the Malaysian experiment has given the company another black eye:

[Medical entomologist Bart] Knols worries that surprises such as the releases in Grand Cayman and Malaysia may erode public trust and provide anti-GM groups with ammunition. The two Malaysian groups, for instance, issued a statement yesterday saying they were “shocked … we condemn the apparently secretive manner in which the trials have been conducted.” Helen Wallace of the advocacy group GeneWatch UK says the lack of communication does little to instill confidence in Oxitec.

Oxitec executives respond that they got the necessary permits, so they weren’t doing anything illegal. That’s hardly the point. When you’re blazing a brand-new technological trail, and you know full well that vocal opponents of the new technology are trying to stop you, the only appropriate response is a large-scale public relations campaign. Open the doors to your labs. Call local radio and TV stations and offer to do interviews. Take out an ad in the paper. Run a blog and talk about the schedule for your activities: what you’re doing, where, and why. Be specific, and be impossible to ignore.

It doesn’t matter if your opponents are irrational, uninformed, or driven by their own hidden agendas – all distinct possibilities in this case. If the technology’s foes can credibly assert that you’re doing secret experiments on the public, you lose.

Please, Oxitec, get your PR game together.