California's people oppose releasing an army of genetically engineered mosquitoes

And these mounting concerns need addressing.
Loukia Papadopoulos

Last March, The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) approved plans from biotech company Oxitec to release billions of genetically engineered mosquitoes in Florida and California in order to fight mosquito-borne diseases. 

The plan works as follows: the male Aedes aegypti mosquitoes 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.

But not everybody is on board with the firm's plans, as reported by the Los Angeles Times Friday.

Risks that have not been fully studied

Many scientists independent from Oxitec are worried about the new venture stating that it has risks that haven’t yet been fully studied. These include the possibility that the experiment will harm other species or make the local mosquito population harder to control.

“There needs to be more transparency about why these experiments are being done,” said Natalie Kofler, a bioethicist at Harvard Medical School. “How are we weighing the risks and benefits?”

Kofler added that the experiments may also be better suited for more tropical regions of the world as California has never witnessed a case in which an Aedes aegypti was found to transmit disease.

"We are concerned that current government oversight and scientific evaluation of GM mosquitoes do not ensure their responsible deployment,” Kofler and four other academic scientists wrote all the way back in 2020 expressing a concern that the EPA was relying on internal data, that could be biased, from the biotech companies in making its decisions. 

Kofler and her colleagues requested that EPA scientists seek out the opinion of independent experts instead of relying on Oxitec. Kofler added that the EPA was possibly “getting caught a little flat-footed.”

“It’s not a modern enough regulatory structure,” she said, “for a very modern and complicated technology.”

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Residents that have not been consulted

Residents who live near areas where the first engineered bugs may be released are also expressing concern at the fact that Oxitec plans to release a maximum of 3.5 million mosquitoes a week.

“This is alarming,” said Angel Garcia a resident of Visalia, one of the targeted areas. “Residents have not been consulted and they have not consented to being part of this.”

Garcia is a member of the nonprofit group Californians for Pesticide Reform. He complains that their concerns have done little to influence Oxitec pointing to a hiring event that Oxitec hosted in Visalia on March 17. 

“It’s as if this is already a done deal,” he said.

State officials have said that public comments can be emailed to [email protected] until April 19 however for now it seems plans to go ahead with the experiment are underway. Will this prove a fruitful endeavor or a catastrophic incident?

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