“Safe and sustainable.” That’s what Oxitec, a British biological pest control company, calls its genetically modified (GM) or genetically engineered (GE) mosquito pesticide product. The company claims its product is nontoxic to humans and animals and won’t harm beneficial insects such as bees and butterflies.
The experiment’s goal is to test the use of GE mosquitoes for reducing the transmission of diseases such as dengue, Zika, chikungunya, and yellow fever. The method of action is post-CRISPR, but uses similar gene engineering technology—inserting a double whammy into the Aedes aegypti male mosquito: a lethal gene and a fluorescent gene (for tracking).
“The goal here is not to kill mosquitoes,” said epidemiologist Thomas Scott of the GE mosquito projects in Science magazine, “It’s to prevent people from getting infected and sick and dying.”
In theory, the experimental pesticide works like this: When GE mosquito strains are released to mate in the wild, the males pass on the lethal gene to their female offspring, which causes female larvae to die before they can develop into biting adults. Male mosquito offspring survive, but male mosquitoes don’t bite. Without the females, the population will eventually (hypothetically), collapse, wiping out the “invasive” species.
But is it really safe and sustainable? We don’t really have real data on the safety part … but reports from Oxitec say they’ve had success in reducing mosquito populations in one of their trials in Brazil—the problem is, the experiment has also created hybrid mosquitoes that scientists say may cause even more trouble.
“The claim was that genes from the release strain would not get into the general population because offspring would die,” said co-author Jeffrey Powell, a professor of ecology and evolutionary biology at Yale University as reported in The Scientist. “That obviously is not what happened.”
Residents in the Florida Keys have already been living with millions of the GM mosquitoes that were released in a pilot project in 2021—now the project will be extended for another couple of years in California as a new pesticide treatment in Fresno, Tulare, San Bernardino, and Stanislaus counties.
Whether the communities of the test sites like it or not, Oxitec will now be letting off more than two billion genetically engineered male mosquitoes in Florida and California, pending permit approval from state regulators and local abatement districts. The project will take place over a two-year period beginning this year.
Florida and California Residents Worry About Safety
On the company website, Oxitec claims their GE mosquito project has received a “warm welcome” from communities in Florida and California.
But Florida newspapers tell a different story. Huge billboards were erected in Florida warning the public of the release. In 2011, a Florida Keys resident and a single mother of three boys launched a petition that gathered 168,000 signatures against the ongoing mosquito trial, which was more than double the population of the Florida Keys at the time.
A 2015 survey of Florida Keys residents found that a majority of survey respondents didn’t support the use of GM mosquitoes as a mosquito control method.
Reasons for opposition included general fears about possible harmful impacts of the intervention, specific worries about human and animal health impact from the GM mosquitoes, and environmental concerns about potential negative effects on the ecosystem.
Some people are not thrilled that Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation granted Oxitec $1,614,272 in September 2020 for “self-limited mosquito field trials” in Africa and North America. According to Statista, 90 percent of mosquito-borne disease cases occur in Africa. So why North America?
Last year, Florida Keys residents made their feelings known, and protested outside a government center in Key Largo over Oxitec’s project. Protest signs said things like “OH HELL NO!” and “GO HOME OXITEC, UR DRUNK.”
One resident told Keys Weekly, “I am really getting tired of the Oxitec press releases stating how much the locals are in full support of this trial.”
The controversy involving genetically modified mosquito products is not that new—in March 2010, the first field trial began, and Oxitec has already field-tested the GE insects in Brazil, Panama, the Cayman Islands, and Malaysia.
Allergenicity and Toxicity Redacted From the Permit
The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) approved the project with the following statement on its 2020 risk assessment: “EPA finds it is unlikely that the local mosquito population would pose any increased risk to humans or the environment.”
The California chapter of Friends of the Earth claims the EPA didn’t publicly release any data from former Oxitec field trials in Florida or Brazil about health effects, “including allergenicity and toxicity,” and the information was redacted from the company’s application for a permit.
Additionally, Friends of the Earth said in a statement that the EPA declined to convene an independent, external Scientific Advisory Panel as it does for other new pesticides.
They say the danger is in what we don’t know about the safety, and the ripple effect of a possible toxin. No scientist or government agency has yet to connect the dots—or examine the exact way this will affect the Earth’s delicate web of life.
“GE mosquitoes could result in far more health and environmental problems than they would solve,” Dana Perls, food and technology program manager at Friends of the Earth and a California resident, said in a statement.
Why Are Floridians Not Worried About Dengue and Chikungunya?
In a Boston Globe opinion piece written by Natalie Kofler, founder of Editing Nature and adviser for the Scientific Citizenship Initiative at Harvard Medical School, and Jennifer Kuzma, co-director of the Genetic Engineering and Society Center, Florida residents aren’t worried about dengue and chikungunya fevers because they’re not much of a threat.
In a University of Florida Medical Entomology Laboratory webinar Dr. Eva Buckner said there were 25 imported cases and 70 locally transmitted cases of dengue in Florida in 2020, and 371 imported cases and 16 local cases in 2019. The Florida Health Department describes the symptoms of dengue as mild to none, with a typical recovery of one week.
Florida Health reports: “While previously present in Florida, the virus was eliminated from the United States several decades ago. Since then, a small number of cases have been reported each year in individuals with recent travel history to a dengue-endemic country.”
West Nile virus is the most common and serious vector-borne disease in California. There have been more than 7,000 cases and more than 300 deaths since 2003, according to the California government’s West Nile webpage.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) reported 2,400 human infections of West Nile in the United States in 2020, of which 165 resulted in death. Mosquito Reviews, a website that specializes in reviewing mosquito control products, reported that 1 in 150 cases of West Nile can be serious, while studies show dengue and chikungunya are fairly mild diseases with treatable symptoms.
CDC statistics reveal that vector-borne diseases have been increasing over time in the United States—with mosquito, tick, and flea disease cases tripling between 2004 and 2016. Actual infections are likely underreported, the CDC says.
However, the CDC lists Lyme disease—a tick-borne disease—as the most commonly reported vector-borne disease in the United States. Data from the CDC show that in 2019 there were approximately 34,945 cases of Lyme disease in the United States—a 4 percent increase from 2018. Between 1999 and 2003, the CDC reported 114 deaths from Lyme, as well as cases of facial palsy, heart complications, arthritis, encephalopathy, and peripheral neuropathy.
The most common mosquito-borne disease in the United States is malaria, with 1,936 cases in 2019, followed by dengue, at 1,444 cases, West Nile at 974 cases, Chikungunya at 274 cases, and Zika at 28 cases.
Risks Assessed Behind Closed Doors
In the Boston Globe opinion piece, Kofler and Kuzma wrote: “The potential benefits of GM mosquitoes may outweigh their unknown ecological risks.
“Herein lies our concern: Risks should not be assessed behind closed doors between technology developers and EPA employees. As designed, the EPA risk assessment process privileges private entities over the American public.
“For starters, an external independent group of experts should be convened to review the first GM mosquitoes presented for release. To address the complexity of such a decision, this group should consist of interdisciplinary experts representing diverse identities with expertise in ecology, genetics, vector biology, risk assessment, entomology, public health, ethics, and social science.”
One thing is certain, they say: People who live in the areas of release need a say in an experiment that has the potential to affect them and their environment—and not after permits have already been granted.
Beth Giuffre is a mosaic artist and frequent contributor to the Epoch Times. When the youngest of her three sons began having seizures, she began researching the root cause of intractable epilepsy, and discovered endless approaches to healing for those who are willing and open to alternatives.