'Halt this nightmare immediately': EPA approves release of genetically-engineered mosquitoes

'Halt this nightmare immediately': EPA approves release of genetically-engineered mosquitoes

Environmental and public health advocates responded with alarm after the Biden administration on Monday gave a British biotechnology company a green light to unleash billions of genetically engineered mosquitoes in the United States.

The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) granted Oxitec an experimental use permit that could lead to the release of genetically engineered (GE) mosquitoes in four California counties and extend a widely criticized program in Florida's Monroe County.

While the release is intended to investigate whether the GE mosquito can reduce the population of Aedes aegypti mosquitoes—which carry various viruses—the species is not common in California and there are no reported cases of the targeted diseases.

"This experiment is unnecessary and even dangerous, as there are no locally acquired cases of dengue, yellow fever, chikungunya, or Zika in California," declared Jaydee Hanson, policy director for the International Center for Technology Assessment and Center for Food Safety.

Oxitec's altered male mosquitoes are supposed to pass on a gene that causes their offspring to die before reaching maturity. However, a peer-reviewed study published in September 2019 by Yale University researchers showed that releasing the GE mosquitoes in Brazil not only failed to reduce populations of Aedes aegypti but also resulted in hybrid mosquitoes.

"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," Hanson said. "Other public health strategies, including the use of Wolbachia infected mosquitoes, could better control the Aedes aegypti in California and Florida."

Dana Perls, food and technology program manager at Friends of the Earth, also noted the findings and warned that "GE mosquitoes could result in far more health and environmental problems than they would solve."

"EPA needs to do a real review of potential risks and stop ignoring widespread opposition in the communities where releases will happen," asserted Perls, a California resident.

Fellow California resident Dr. Robert Gould, president of San Francisco Bay Physicians for Social Responsibility, emphasized that "once released into the environment, genetically engineered mosquitoes cannot be recalled."

"Rather than forge ahead with an unregulated open-air genetic experiment, we need precautionary action, transparent data, and appropriate risk assessments," he said.

As a joint statement from Gould, Perls, and Hanson's groups highlighted:

The EPA did not publicly release any data from Oxitec field trials in Florida or Brazil and key information about health effects, including allergenicity and toxicity, was redacted from the company's application for a permit. EPA did not require key scientific assessments, including an endangered species assessment, public health impact analysis, or caged trials ahead of any environmental release. The EPA declined to convene a scientific advisory panel as it does for other new pesticides.

The groups and other local organizations were outraged last spring when Oxitec introduced GE mosquitoes in Florida, the first release of its kind in the United States. Shortly before the launch, Friends of the Earth had called on the EPA to "halt this nightmare immediately."

If approved by the California Department of Pesticide Regulation and local decision-makers, GE mosquitoes could be released in Fresno, San Bernadino, Stanislaus, and Tulare counties this summer.

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