Scientists have long searched for effective solutions to combat mosquito-borne diseases. Several mosquito repellent products are available in the market. However, the biotechnology company Oxitec has gone further in its research by using genetically modified mosquitoes.
In this context, the EPA or Environmental Protection Agency of the United States has just authorized Oxitec to release billions of genetically modified mosquitoes in Florida and California. The objective of this operation is to fight against diseases transmitted by mosquitoes such as dengue fever and the Zika virus.
This recent permit follows a pilot project in the Florida Keys successfully conducted by the company in 2021.
The principle of experimentation
After successfully passing a whole series of risk assessments, Oxitec is ready to release, on an experimental basis, 2.4 billion genetically modified mosquitoes, including more than 2 billion in California and just under 400 million in Florida. The release of these mosquitoes will occur during two distinct periods between 2022 and 2024. The mosquitoes in question are Aedes aegypti males, which do not bite, but whose species is the vector of several diseases such as dengue fever, chikungunya, Zika and yellow fever. These laboratory mosquitoes were modified to induce the production of the tTAV-OX5034 protein.
Once the released males mate with wild female mosquitoes, the protein will be transmitted and effectively kill the female offspring before they reach maturity. Oxitec hopes to reduce the local mosquito population and stem disease transmission.
A controversial decision
The prospect of releasing swarms of genetically modified insects into the wild, however, is not to everyone’s liking. For good reason, in 2019, the same experiment was carried out in Brazil and the project was not conclusive. Several mosquitoes are said to have survived into adulthood, thus enriching the mosquito population in the region.
For his part, Dr. Robert Gould, president of the San Francisco Bay Physicians for Social Responsibility, emphasizes the fact that this action is irreversible. It calls for precautionary measures and proper risk assessment. Jaydee Hanson, director of policy for the International Center for Technology Assessment and Center for Food Safety, added that the experiment was unnecessary, even dangerous, since there are no local cases of these diseases in California.
In the face of public concern, Oxitec said their technology was safe and harmless to beneficial insects. Gray Frandsen, CEO of Oxitec, even claimed thatAedes aegypti posed a growing threat to health in the United States and that the company is working to make this technology available and accessible.