Millions of genetically engineered mosquitos could soon be set loose in California in an effort to curb the disease-carrying Aedes aegypti mosquito population — but some experts are concerned that it could backfire.
On March 7, Oxitec, a private company, obtained a permit from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to release its mosquitos in specific districts in Florida and California. The company reasoned that its genetically modified insects could help to save the world half of the world's population from the invasive Aedes aegypti mosquito which, according to Oxitec, increases the risk of transmission of dengue, chikungunya, Zika, yellow fever, and other diseases.
"Given the growing health threat this mosquito poses across the U.S., we're working to make this technology available and accessible," Grey Frandsen, CEO of Oxitec, said in a statement. "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."
However, a number of scientists are critical of the proposal.
Some say that there are risks that come with unleashing the mosquitos into the wild — like harm to other species or making the mosquito population harder to control — that have not been fully studied.
"There needs to be more transparency about why these experiments are being done," Natalie Kofler, a bioethicist at Harvard Medical School who has followed the company's work," told the Los Angeles Times. "How are we weighing the risks and benefits?"
The outlet noted that Oxitec has not released much of its data from previous experiments or published those results in peer-reviewed scientific journals.
Oxitec is proposing that it unleash 3.5 million mosquitos a week to 48 different locations across the country, the Times reported. Residents are wary.
"This is alarming," Angel Garcia, who lives near Visalia, where the first engineered mosquito in California may be released, told the outlet. "Residents have not been consulted and they have not consented to being part of this."
At issue, Garcia said, is that Oxitec had hosted a hiring event in Visalia last month with flyers advertising positions for field and lab technicians. It appeared as if the company was going ahead with the experiment before it received approval.
"It's as if this is already a done deal," Garcia said.
Other scientists are concerned that releasing genetically modified mosquitos could create hybrids that could ultimately be more dangerous to humans, but Nathan Rose, Oxitec's head of regulatory affairs, said that the insects had been engineered so that their DNA would soon disappear from the wild population. He explained that mosquitos with the company's genes produce female offspring that die. Additionally, the mosquitos are more vulnerable to chemical insecticides.
Commenting on this, an EPA spokesperson explained that regulators expected that mosquitoes with the corporate genes "would disappear from the environment within 10 generations of mosquitoes because they are not able to reproduce as successfully as local populations," the Times reported.
Various safety precautions are being taken. Oxitec is not permitted to release its mosquitos within 500 meters of any commercial citrus grove, livestock facility or human waste treatment plant, and the company is also required to conduct searches for any female mosquitos that survive. If found, Oxitec is required to alert regulators and if problems are found, the EPA could shut down the experiment.
Zoe Papadakis is a Newsmax writer based in South Africa with two decades of experience specializing in media and entertainment. She has been in the news industry as a reporter, writer and editor for newspapers, magazine and websites.
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