Millions of genetically modified mosquitoes are slated for release in Florida and California with the goal of eradicating disease-carrying mosquitoes. The news has sparked concern and controversy among health professionals and environmental advocates.
The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) approved the release of more than 2 billion male mosquitoes in Florida and California with the aim of extending until 2024 a study it has been conducting to reduce the population of the Aedes aegypti mosquito.
The experiment is being developed by Oxitec, a biotechnology company that has partnered with the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and several other companies, which are providing funding for its projects.
Under the extension of the Experimental Use Permit, the EPA will release nearly 2.5 billion non-biting, genetically modified male Aedes aegypti mosquitoes, which are expected to mate with biting females. The resulting offspring would contain a gene that will ensure their death before reaching maturity.
According to USA Today, the experiment aims to reduce the transmission of diseases such as dengue, Zika, yellow fever, and chikungunya, which are commonly transmitted by mosquitoes.
According to Oxitec, this year’s project in Florida is a continuation of one that was done in 2021, where millions of mosquitoes had been released, in what it called “a successful pilot project.”
In addition to the Florida project, EPA on Monday approved another in California that “is being planned in partnership with the Delta Mosquito and Vector Control District in Tulare County,” the biotech company reports on its page.
“This expansion of our U.S. efforts reflects the strong partnerships we’ve developed with a large and diverse range of stakeholders at the local, state and national levels,” said Gray Frandsen, Oxitec’s chief executive officer.
However, several critics, including environmental advocates, have dismissed the program on the grounds that the consequences of releasing genetically modified mosquitoes are unknown.
The particular concern raised by Dana Perls, food and technology program manager for the international environmental organization Friends of the Earth, is the lack of peer-reviewed scientific data obtained over the past year.
“There’s no immediate problem, and there are a lot of unknowns,” she said, and further raised concerns that there is no information on confirmed outbreaks caused by this mosquito in California.
This is corroborated by state health officials, who indicate that while this species of mosquito has the potential to transmit several viruses, including dengue, chikungunya, Zika and yellow fever, “None of these viruses are currently known to be transmitted within California.”
For Perls, it is absolutely necessary to generate a framework that regulates the creation of genetically altered organisms before approving more widespread testing that may bring uncontrollable consequences.
“Once you release these mosquitoes into the environment, you cannot recall them,” she said. “This could, in fact, create problems that we don’t have already.”
While Jaydee Hanson, policy director for the International Center for Technology Assessment and Food Safety, told The San Bernardino Sun that he believes the Oxitec experiment should be conducted in a controlled environment to avoid mishaps.
He further opined that “the parameters that the EPA has put into this experiment are inadequate” and suggested that important data have been omitted.
“Big portions of the environmental effects have been blacked out (on reports) and, more concerning to me, most of all the discussions of the allergic reactions to these mosquitoes has been blacked out,” Hansen said.
“If this is the best thing since sliced bread, show us how you slice it. … We’re not saying this shouldn’t be done: We’re saying the parameters that the EPA has put on this experiment are inadequate,” according to SBSun.