Millions of genetically modified mosquitoes are set to be released in California and Florida in an effort to reduce the number of real, disease-carrying invasive mosquitoes.
The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency on Monday approved use of the genetically engineered insects in pilot projects in specific districts across both states.
The mosquitoes were made by UK-based biotechnology firm Oxitec, which is funded by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, in an effort to combat insect-borne diseases such as dengue fever, yellow fever, and the Zika virus.
According to Oxitec, its “sustainable and targeted biological pest control technology does not harm beneficial insects like bees and butterflies and is proven to control the disease-transmitting Aedes aegypti mosquito, which has invaded communities in Florida, California, and other U.S. states.”
Since it was first detected in California in 2013, the Aedes aegypti mosquito has spread rapidly to more than 20 counties throughout the state, increasing the risk of mosquito-borne diseases being transmitted to humans.
Oxitec’s new technology consists of genetically-modified male mosquitoes, which do not bite, that will be released into the wild where they are expected to mate with females, which do bite.
In mating with them, they will pass on a lethal gene that will effectively ensure their offspring die before reaching maturity.
Environmental Protection officials approved two projects on Monday, one with the Delta Mosquito and Vector Control District (Delta MVCD) in California and one with the Florida Keys Mosquito Control District (FKMCD) in Florida.
The Florida pilot project will be a continuation of Oxitec’s partnership with the Florida Keys Mosquito Control District after its pilot project in the Keys in 2021.
“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. “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.”
The upcoming release of the modified insects will be the largest release in world history.
However, critics, including scientists, public health experts, and environmental groups, are concerned about what impacts releasing the genetically altered mosquitoes could have on public health as well as the environment.
“This is a destructive move that is dangerous for public health,” Dana Perls, food and technology program manager with Friends of the Earth, an environmental advocacy organization, told USA Today.
Perls said her biggest concern was the lack of widespread, peer-reviewed scientific data regarding the genetically modified insects and the potential risk they could bring.
“Once you release these mosquitoes into the environment, you cannot recall them,” she said. “This could, in fact, create problems that we don’t have already.”
While California does not yet have locally acquired cases of dengue or other viruses spread by Aedes aegypti, the mosquito itself is widespread throughout the state, thus creating conditions for local disease outbreaks to occur.
Additionally, the mosquitoes that are set to be released will persist in the environment for more than a few weeks after releases are stopped.
Oxitec says its mosquitoes are a safe, effective, and environmentally friendly control solution and do not pose a threat to either humans or the environment.
Jaydee Hanson, policy director with the Center for Food Safety said the “experiment is unnecessary and even dangerous” while pointing to the lack of prominent tropical diseases in California.
“There are no locally acquired cases of dengue, yellow fever, chikungunya or Zika in California,” Hanson said. “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.”
“Other public health strategies, including the use of Wolbachia infected mosquitoes, could better control the Aedes aegypti in California and Florida,” Hanson added.
The Environmental Protection Agency has registered multiple traditional adulticides and larvicides, as well as Wolbachia-infected mosquitoes.
According to Quartz, areas including Malaysia, Brazil, the Cayman Islands, and Panama have seen their mosquito populations drop by as much as 90 percent after similar experiments were conducted.