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Tuesday, June 9, 2020

June 09, 2020
Photo Credit: Wikimedia

A company called Oxitec has received an experimental use permit from the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), to release genetically modified mosquitos into the wild. This would be the first time that such an experiment was attempted within the borders of the US, and the permit would allow for the release of millions of genetically modified mosquitos each week over the next two years. The genetically modified insects will be released in Florida and Texas, but they will easily be able to travel throughout the country from there.

The mosquitos are likely only being deployed in Texas and Florida for now, because the company needs approval from each individual state in addition to federal EPA approval. A previously planned release in the Florida Keys of an earlier version of Oxitec’s GM mosquito was canceled in 2016 after push back from local residents about the potential dangers.

However, other regions have welcomed Oxitec with open arms, including Brazil, the Cayman Islands, Malaysia, and Panama.

For the recent public forum regarding Oxitec’s recent permit application in the US, there were 31,174 comments opposing the release of the mosquitos and only 56 in support. While the EPA promised to consider these votes during their review process, the permit still went through anyway.

Scientists hope that these genetically modified mosquitos can help eliminate diseases that are typically carried by mosquitos, such as dengue, chikungunya, yellow fever, and Zika.

The plan is that these genetically modified male mosquitos will mate with wild females, and their genetics will cause the children to die, and should cause a collapse of the wild population.

However, there is growing concern among scientists that this technology may not be ready for deployment, and that the risks have not been studied thoroughly enough. Many scientists are warning about the potential unintended consequences that can come from unleashing such insects into the wild. For example, researchers are entirely unaware of what type of allergic reactions that these insects could cause if they interact with people.

To help with some of these concerns, the Institute for Sustainability, Energy and Environment at University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign hosted a “Critical Conversation” on genetically modified mosquitoes, which involved 35 researchers from various different backgrounds, including academia, governments, and nonprofit organizations. The researchers came from many different parts of the world, and were all experts in mosquito biology.

The ultimate conclusion that the researchers came to was that the process by which this type of genetic modification was sanctioned was not transparent enough, and that the entire risk assessment for the technology needed to be restudied and reconsidered before any further wild experimentation is done. They also noted that the new risk assessment procedures should be more transparent and open to the public so researchers can monitor the studies and be confident that everything is above board.

However, it doesn’t seem that anyone is actually listening to these scientists, because the experiments are planning to go ahead as scheduled and show no signs of slowing down any time soon.