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The EPA approves plans to release billions of genetically modified mosquitos

With the aim of curbing mosquito-borne diseases.

The EPA approves plans to release billions of genetically modified mosquitos
Flying mosquitoes against a green background. Hans Verburg/iStock

In addition to generating a pesky itch, some mosquito bites can leave humans with several diseases including Dengue, chikungunya, Zika, and yellow fever. Now, a firm is trying to do something about it and the U.S. government is on board!

A plan to end mosquito-borne diseases

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has approved plans from biotech company Oxitec to release billions of genetically engineered mosquitoes in Florida and California in order to fight mosquito-borne diseases. Oxitec will now release 2.4 billion gene-altered mosquitos in two periods between 2022 and 2024.

These insects are the male Aedes aegypti mosquitoes that have been genetically tweaked to express the protein tTAV-OX5034. Once these males reproduce with wild female mosquitoes, the protein will be passed on and kill the female offspring which is responsible for biting and infecting people with diseases.

This process, the scientists hope, will squash transmissions of mosquito-borne diseases and protect vulnerable populations. But not everyone is on board.

Concerns abound

“Scientists have found genetic material from GE mosquitoes in wild populations at significant levels, which means GE mosquitoes are not sterile. GE mosquitoes could result in far more health and environmental problems than they would solve,” said in a statement Dana Perls, Food and Technology Program Manager at Friends of the Earth, and a California resident. “EPA needs to do a real review of potential risks and stop ignoring widespread opposition in the communities where releases will happen.”

“This experiment is unnecessary and even dangerous, as there are no locally acquired cases of dengue, yellow fever, chikungunya, or Zika in California,” added Jaydee Hanson, Policy Director for the International Center for Technology Assessment and Center for Food Safety. ”Releasing billions of GE mosquitoes makes it likely that female GE mosquitoes will get out and create hybrid mosquitoes that are more virulent and aggressive."

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Oxitec has tried to address this criticism by insisting that their experiments are safe for both human and other insect populations and that combatting these mosquito-borne diseases is absolutely essential.

“Given the growing health threat this mosquito poses across the U.S., we’re working to make this technology available and accessible. These pilot programs, wherein we can demonstrate the technology’s effectiveness in different climate settings, will play an important role in doing so. We look forward to getting to work this year,” Grey Frandsen, CEO of Oxitec, concluded.

In the past, trials with mosquitoes engineered to spread anti-malaria genes have been successful. So why should this experiment be any different?

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