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Daily News Blog

16
Mar

EPA Permits Experimental Release of 2.5 Billion Genetically Engineered Mosquitoes in California and Florida

(Beyond Pesticides, March 16, 2022) The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has authorized the “experimental use” and release of 2.5 billion genetically engineered (GE) mosquitoes in Florida and California by the British-based firm Oxitec. While the goal of eliminating disease carrying mosquitoes is an important public health challenge, public opinion has been consistently against the use of these animals, with nearly 240,000 individuals opposing a pilot program in the Florida Keys. Health and environmental advocates have a range of concerns with Oxitec’s approach, including the size of its latest experiment, lack of publicly verifiable efficacy data, and availability of alternative management practices not requiring GE mosquitoes.

Oxitec began public releases of its GE mosquitoes at least a decade ago, when mosquito larvae were introduced in the Brazilian town of Itaberaba. The company has consistently angled to launch its mosquitoes in the United States under the claim that the animals will reduce numbers of Aedes aegypti, a highly problematic mosquito known to vector a range of diseases, including dengue, yellow fever chikungunya, and Zika. Research analyzing Oxitec’s proposals note that the risk of dengue and other disease from Aedes aegypti is low in the United States. In a recent study in Globalization and Health that reviews the U.S. government’s approval of the Florida Keys release, the author indicates the decision,  “…is as inappropriate as the decision to propose an area where there is no fire (and virtually no risk of fire) as the site of the field test of a product that is supposed to prevent fires and act as a fire retardant.” In this context, the importance of U.S. trials to Oxitec could be to encourage other countries with higher Aedes aegypti populations to embrace their new technology, as the decisions of U.S. regulators are often used as the basis for decisions made in other countries. This would position U.S. residents and local environments as variable in an experiment approved by EPA and conducted by a foreign company for foreign buyers.

Those opposed to the massive 2.5 billion mosquito release (which is now permitted in Monroe County, Florida and Stanislaus, Fresno, Tulare, and San Bernardino counties, California) say that it is too large, and that more limited testing in a controlled environment should be conducted first. “What we would have liked to have seen is something closer to what Oxitec and the U.S. Department of Agriculture did regarding their diamondback moth releases in New York state,” said JD Hansen of the Center for Food Safety to the San Bernadino Sun. “What the (department) did, in part at our urging, were tented trials: You have an enclosed environment where you try to replicate the environment you’re releasing the insect into, as much as you can, to see what happens.”

Oxitec’s technology breeds mosquitoes to include a genetic sequence that makes the mosquito dependent on the antibiotic tetracycline. Without tetracycline, mosquitoes will not develop into adulthood. The company releases male mosquitoes with this genetic sequence into the environment to breed with females. When it works correctly, the offspring produced will also have tetracycline dependency and not develop into adulthood.

A spokesperson for Oxitec told the San Bernadino Sun that it had reduced A. aegypti numbers in an area by 98%. But that claim is not publicly verifiable, as U.S. regulators permit companies to maintain their internal data as confidential business information. What publicly available data there is on GE mosquitoes do not indicate efficacy at that level. In 2012, confidential Oxitec documents obtained by the British group Genewatch UK showed that 15% of GE animals were able to survive to adulthood. This was because mosquitoes were being reared on canned chicken cat food that contained trace levels of tetracycline from its production process. In the context of the current proposed releases in agricultural areas of California, EPA’s authorization limits release within 500 meters of a wastewater treatment plant, orchard crops, and livestock facilities, but it still remains highly likely that low levels of tetracycline in the environment will be encountered.

The experience of the Cayman Islands provides the clearest indication of the program’s limited efficacy. After contracting with Oxitec for two years and releasing millions of GE mosquitoes, Cayman Island officials were set to renew their contract. But data from the trials indicated serious problems, leading the territory’s environmental health minister to tell the Edmonton Journal, “The scheme wasn’t getting the results we were looking for.” Briefing, documents again uncovered by Genewatch indicated “no significant reduction in the abundance of mosquitoes in the released area,” and further found that the number of biting, disease-spreading females had actually increased. Cayman Island Officials indicated concern that the approach could be spreading antibiotic resistance or make mosquito-borne diseases worse by lowering immunity. Tellingly, Oxitec’s failed proposed plan with the Caymans would have included supplemental use of mosquito adulticides, a practice the company claims the GE technology would eliminate.

Neither GE mosquitoes nor highly hazardous insecticides should be the primary line of defense against mosquito problems. Control of disease-carrying mosquitoes can be successful when emphasis is placed on public education and preventative strategies. Individuals can take action by eliminating standing water, introducing mosquito-eating fish, encouraging predators such as bats, birds, dragonflies and frogs, and using least-toxic larvicides like bacillus thuringiensis israelensis (Bti). Community based programs should encourage residents to employ these effective techniques, focus on eliminating breeding sites on public lands, and promote monitoring and action levels in order to determine what, where, and when control measures might be needed. Through education of proper cultural controls, and least-toxic and cost effective biological alternatives, the use of risky toxic pesticides and experimental technologies like GE mosquitoes can be avoided.

For additional information and resources on least-toxic mosquito control alternatives, see Beyond Pesticides’ Mosquito Management program page.

All unattributed positions and opinions in this piece are those of Beyond Pesticides.

Source: San Bernadino Sun, Globalization and Health, Regulations.gov

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