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Daily News Blog

17
May

Efficacy and Health Issues Stop Release of Genetically Engineered Mosquitoes in California; Florida Continues

(Beyond Pesticides, May 17 2023) British biotechnology company Oxitec is withdrawing its application to release billions of genetically engineered mosquitoes in California, according to a recent update from the California Department of Pesticide Regulation. The withdrawal is a victory for environmental and health campaigners concerned about the release of a novel mosquito that the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) had previously authorized under an “experimental use” permit. “Genetically engineered mosquitoes are an environmental justice issue for Tulare County residents who should not be human experiments,” said Angel Garcia, codirector of the statewide coalition Californians for Pesticide Reform and Tulare County resident in a press release. “We are already impacted by some of the worst pollution problems in the state and deserve prior informed consent to being part of an open-air biopesticide experiment. Ahead of any future proposal for genetically engineered insects, DPR needs to have robust regulations in place that protect community members, and meaningful, inclusive public participation in any decision making.”    

Oxitec began releasing its GE mosquitoes over a decade ago, first introducing the insects in the Brazilian town of Itaberaba. The company has made efforts to launch its mosquitoes in the United States, likely as a way to encourage other countries to embrace their new technology, as decisions from U.S. regulators are often used as the basis for governmental decisions made in other countries.

Yet, its work in other countries, such as the Cayman Islands, highlights the problems with the novel approach. After releasing millions of GE mosquitoes under a two-year contract with Oxitec, 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.” There was further concern that the released mosquitoes could be spreading antibiotic resistance or make mosquito-borne diseases worse by lowering individual immunity.

U.S. regulators did little to alleviate these concerns in making their initial approval of the release last year. A study published in Globalization and Health on the Food and Drug Administration’s (FDA) GE mosquito field trial in Key Haven, Florida in 2016 determined that it “did not proximate the conditions under which the GE mosquitoes would be used in regions of the global South where there is a high prevalence of mosquito-borne diseases.” The author further concluded that, “If ineffective public health interventions are adopted based on risk evaluations that do not closely mirror the conditions under which those products would actually be used, there could be public health and ethical costs for those population.”

Concern over health impacts were combined with an overall lack of proven efficacy with results to date. While Oxitec has made claims that it is able to reduce populations of disease-carrying Aedes aegypti by 98%, this claim has not been publicly verified, as U.S. regulators permit companies to maintain their internal data as confidential business information. Confidential Oxitec documents obtained by the British watchdog group Genewatch UK in 2012 show that 15% of GE animals are 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 proposed releases in agricultural areas of California, limits on releasing mosquitoes within 500 meters of a wastewater treatment plant, orchard crops, and livestock facilities are not likely to be effective.

It is telling that in Oxitec’s last ditch effort to maintain its contract with the Cayman Islands, the company proposed a mosquito management approach that would have included the supplemental use of mosquito adulticides.

The withdrawal from California is a major acknowledgement that the project is too ineffective and risky for public health. Neither GE mosquitoes nor highly hazardous insecticides should be the primary line of defense against mosquito problems. Disease-carrying mosquitoes can be successfully managed by placing emphasis on education and prevention. This includes eliminating standing water, and encouraging predators such as fish, bats, birds, dragonflies and frogs, and using least-toxic larvicides like bacillus thuringiensis israelensis (Bti) judiciously in problem areas. Community-wide programs should encourage residents to employ these approaches, and focus on eliminating breeding sites on public lands, monitoring and action levels in order to determine what, where, and when control measures might be needed.

While these mosquitoes will no longer be released in California, approval in Florida – specifically, for Monroe County, FL – does not appear to have changed. Residents in that region are urged to take action by contacting their local and state elected officials today. More information on safe mosquito management approaches can be found on Beyond Pesticides mosquito management and insect borne disease program page.

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

Source: California Department of Pesticide Regulation, FoE press release

Image Source: Wikimedia

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