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Genetically modified mosquitoes cleared for release in the US

  • Published at 09:17 am June 11th, 2020
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The federal government has given permission to release genetically modified mosquitoes, but the permits still need local approval

A British biotech company called Oxitec has permission to release genetically modified mosquitoes in Florida and Texas.

The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has approved, on May 1, an experimental use permit which allows Oxitec to release genetically modified mosquitoes in the Florida Keys and Harris County, Texas, reports USA Today.

“To meet today’s public health challenges head-on, the nation needs to facilitate innovation and advance the science around new tools and approaches to better protect the health of all Americans,” according to the EPA’s news release.

The permit, which lasts for two years, requires Oxitec to “monitor and sample the mosquito population weekly.”

“EPA has also maintained the right to cancel it (the permit) at any point during the 24-month period if unforeseen outcomes occur,” according to the release.

Why would a company create a new kind of mosquito? What purpose does it serve?

A few years ago, people – especially pregnant women – were concerned about contracting the Zika virus. It is the virus that causes a birth defect called microcephaly -- underdevelopment of the head and brain -- according to the Centers for Disease Control.

Oxitec claims its Aedes Aegypti mosquito, known as OX5034, can drastically reduce the spread of Zika as well as dengue, chikungunya and yellow fever.

How it works

Male mosquitoes do not bite, they feed on flower nectar and are harmless to humans.However, female mosquitoes use blood to grow their eggs.

Oxitec created a male mosquito with a special gene that prevents female offsprings from surviving to adulthood.

The new males grow up, mate with more females and over time the number of Aedes Aegypti declines.

“Continual, large-scale releases of these OX5034 GM males should eventually cause the temporary collapse of a wild population,” according to Oxitec.

In Brazil, which suffered a Zika outbreak in 2015 and 2016, the company claims its “friendly” mosquitoes reduced the population of Aedes Aegypti by 89% to 96%.

However, there is opposition to these genetically modified mosquitoes.

Introduction into the US

Oxitec has been trying to make Florida the first US test site for its “friendly” mosquitoes for nearly a decade.

The company came close in 2016, but local officials in Monroe County (the Florida Keys) ultimately voted no.

Oxitec pulled its request and decided to try again with what it described as an upgraded version of the mosquito. That is what the EPA approved on May 1.

Before weekly mosquito releases can start, however, the Florida Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services and the Florida Keys Mosquito Control District have to approve.

The Florida Keys Environmental Coalition hopes to persuade officials to vote no again.

"We have repeatedly asked for Oxitec to work with us to prove the technology is safe," Barry Wray, executive director of the Florida Keys Environmental Coalition, said in a statement in 2018 after Oxitec applied for its second permit.

"Instead of receiving Oxitec's cooperation to provide this confidence, we have witnessed a pattern of avoidance, misrepresentations, obfuscations and using marketing and political influence to persuade the regulatory and community stakeholders to proceed with what is truly a poorly designed experiment on our public and ecosystems," Wray said.

The Texas releases are not scheduled until 2021.

The federal government has truly given permission to Oxitec to release genetically modified mosquitoes in Florida and Texas, but the permits still need local approval.