Have Genetically Modified Mosquitoes Been OK’d for Release in U.S.?

A British biotech company called Oxitec has permission to release genetically modified mosquitoes in Florida and Texas, according to an article in the Columbus Post-Dispatch.

The Environmental Protection Agency approved an experimental use permit May 1 that allows Oxitec to release genetically modified mosquitoes in the Florida Keys and Harris County, Texas, where Houston is located.

“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 press 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 the (permit) at any point during the 24-month period if unforeseen outcomes occur,” according to the release.

Why would a company create a mosquito?

The Zika virus has been a concern because it could cause a birth defect called microcephaly (underdevelopment of the head and brain), according to the Centers for Disease Control.

Diseases like Zika, dengue, chikungunya and yellow fever are all carried by one type of mosquito, the Aedes aegypti. Oxitec claims its Aedes aegypti (known as the OX5034) can drastically lower the wild populations of these specific mosquitoes.

Male mosquitoes don’t bite; they feed on flower nectar while female mosquitoes use blood to grow their eggs. Basically, male mosquitoes are harmless to humans.

Oxitec created a male mosquito with a special gene that prevents their female offspring from surviving to adulthood. The new males grow up, mate with more wild 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 percent.

Is there opposition to these genetically modified mosquitoes?

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

The company came close in 2016 when citizens in Monroe County (where the Florida Keys are located) voted for their release. Key Haven residents, however voted against it, and that’s where the company planned to release the mosquitoes. County officials planned to pick another community, but the federal government upended those plans.

Regulatory control over the mosquitoes was changed from the Food and Drug Administration to the EPA.

“We had to reapply with the EPA,” said Dr. Nathan Rose, head of regulatory affairs at Oxitec.

So, now the company is basically back where it was in 2016. Rose said they are waiting on approvals from the Florida Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services and the Florida Keys Mosquito Control District.

The Florida Keys Environmental Coalition plans to try and stop that from happening.

“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 aren’t scheduled until 2021.

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