Science

US EPA Set To Release Billions More Genetically Modified Mosquitoes

Funded by the Bill & Melinda Gates foundation, the company Oxitec has released billions of genetically modified mosquitoes in multiple regions across the planet. 2 billion more will now be released in specific areas in the US.

By Arjun Walia | The Pulse

On March 7th, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) approved an “experimental use permit” amendment for the Oxitec corporation to release two billion more genetically modified mosquitoes. Oxitec is primarily funded by the Bill & Meldina Gates Foundation as well as the Wellcome Trust, headed by former Australian Prime Minister Julia Gillard.

Testing of these organisms has been on-going over the past several years. This new permit simply, according to the EPA, “extends the testing of genetically engineered Aedes aegypti (OX5034) mosquitoes to reduce mosquito populations.”

Prior to this, an EUP was granted in May 2020 that allowed Oxitec to field test the use of these mosquitoes in Florida and Texas. That approval allowed the release of over 1 billion genetically modified mosquitoes.

The new EUP allows the company to continue the release until April 30, 2024. It also expands the territory, allowing the expansion of release into four counties in California for the first time, consisting of 29,400 acres in Stanislaus, Fresno, Tulare, and San Bernardino.

The EPA explains,

“Aedes aegypti mosquitoes, which are among the most common invasive mosquito species in the United States, can transmit diseases such as dengue, Zika, and chikungunya to humans; therefore, mosquito control is important for protecting human health. Additionally, the use of species-specific modified mosquitoes could reduce the use of pesticides for mosquito control. This may be especially beneficial for densely populated communities with environmental justice concerns. These communities could be at higher risk for exposure to mosquitoes, virus transmission, and exposure to pesticides from mosquito control.”

Male mosquitoes that are modified can mate with female mosquitoes and produce weak offspring that never make it to adulthood, thus reducing the total population and in turn reducing the rate of disease spread. This is because the male mosquitoes have been modified to carry a gene that makes their female progeny dependent on the antibiotic tetracycline. As the mating cycle repeats over generations, female numbers are theoretically depleted and the population is suppressed.

Male mosquitoes don’t drink human blood, and since all of the mosquitoes are male, there is apparently nothing to worry about.

According to the EPA,

“Data submitted by Oxitec demonstrate that OX5034 mosquitoes meet FIFRA standards of not causing unreasonable adverse effects to humans or the environment… Oxitec may release adult male OX5034 mosquitoes, which do not bite people.”

But is this true? In 2012 Hadyn Parry, who was the CEO of Oxitec at the time, said approximately 1 in every 3000 genetically modified released mosquitoes are indeed female. What happens if they bite humans in the area? What happens if they bite other animals? Furthermore, tetracycline is present in vast quantities within the environment, what happens if the offspring access it by biting certain animals who are taking this antibiotic? If a female mosquito, daughter to a modified one, bit meat or an animal that contained tetracycline, she could survive and reproduce.

According to a paper published in Nature Biotechnology in 2011, 3.5% of the insects in a laboratory test survived to adulthood, despite presumably carrying the lethal gene. This was without tetracycline being available to them.

The fact is, tetracycline is available in abundance within the environment, a study published in 2021 in Environmental Sciences Europe explains,

“Tetracycline pollution is a growing global threat to aquatic and terrestrial biodiversity due to its unprecedented use in aquaculture, livestock, and human disease prevention. The influx of tetracycline may annihilate the microbial ecology structure in the environment and pose a severe threat to humans by disturbing the food chain.”

But the EPA claims that there is only a “remote chance that environmental sources of tetracycline could have enough tetracycline present to act as a counter agent to the OX5034 female mosquito-lethal trait.”

It’s concerning given the fact that the EPA is banking on the hope that these genetically modified offspring will die. The question is, what if they don’t? Neither the EPA nor Oxitec addresses these potentials. Furthermore, how can something like this possibly be properly measured and monitored?

There are many unknowns, and this seems to be one large experiment without our consent. The EPA explains,

“Oxitec is not required under EPA’s human studies rule to obtain informed consent of those living in the areas where Oxitec mosquitoes would be released.”

This is because the research involved with Oxitec’s release of these mosquitoes does not meet the regulatory definition of research involving human subjects.

Critics have long accused Oxitec of a lack of transparency. In 2012, the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Biology in Germany examined information regarding the release of modified insects into the environment in Malaysia and Grand Cayman, which were carried out by Oxitec. The scientists’ findings suggested that there are “deficits in the scientific quality of regulatory documents and a general absence of accurate experimental descriptions available before releases start.”

In 2019 their tone changed a little bit, but they still stressed the importance of informed consent,

“In any case, the possible consequences must be carefully examined and the advantages and disadvantages weighted against each other before genetically modified mosquitoes are released into the environment. And, of course, the local population must be involved not only in such decisions but also in the research and implementation of these powerful approaches in the field.”

It’s not that these mosquitoes won’t work, and kill off populations of insects that are responsible for spreading deadly diseases, especially in poverty stricken areas. The point is that we don’t know the other consequences that may result from these releases. There are so many unanswered questions and potentials for disastrous long term consequences. Mosquitoes are also a vital part of the ecosystem in various ways just like many other life forms are.

This article simply presents a tidbit of the concerns. Another one explained by Joe Cummins, long time genetics professor at Western University, London, Ontario,

“The potential exists for these genes, which hop from one place to another, to infect human blood by finding entry through skin lesions or inhaled dust. Such transmission could potentially wreak havoc with the human genome by creating “insertion mutations” and other unpredictable types of DNA damage.”

No proper risk assessments have been done, and again, this type of thing is extremely difficult to monitor.

Another paper published in Nature in Sept 2019 pointed out that its “unclear” how these genetically modified mosquitoes will even affect disease transmission or affect other efforts to control these dangerous viruses. They also found that the effectiveness of the release program that began a few years ago in South America began to break down after about 18 months, i.e., the population which had been greatly suppressed rebounded to nearly pre-release levels. They stress, as mentioned above, “the importance of having in place a genetic monitoring program during releases of transgenic organisms to detect unanticipated consequences.”

A report released as far back as 2012 from GeneWatch UK, Testbiotech, Berne Declaration, SwissAid, and Corporate Europe Observatory explains the problems that have plagued the approval of the release of these insects that have occurred over the past several years in multiple parts of the world.

Regulatory decisions on GM insects in Europe and around the world are being biased by corporate interests as the UK biotech company Oxitec has infiltrated decision-making processes around the world. The company has close links to the multinational pesticide and seed company, Syngenta. Oxitec has already made large-scale open releases of GM mosquitoes in the Cayman Islands, Malaysia and Brazil and is developing GM agricultural pests, jointly with Syngenta.

The European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) is one of several examples showing how industry organises its influence. In EFSA´s GM insects working group, which was established to develop guidance for risk assessment of genetically engineered insects, there are several cases of conflicts of interest, including experts with links to Oxitec who only partially declared their interests. The draft Guidance on risk assessment of GM insects shows some significant deficiencies: for example it does not consider the impacts of GM insects on the food chain. Oxitec’s GM insects are genetically engineered to die mostly at the larval stage so dead GM larvae will enter the food chain inside food crops such as olives, cabbages and tomatoes.

Living GM insects could also be transported on crops to other farms or different countries. EFSA has excluded any consideration of these important issues from its draft guidance. Many other issues are not properly addressed. A World Health Organisation (WHO)-funded project has allowed the company to bypass requirements for informed consent for the release of GM mosquitoes. The WHO-funded Mosqguide project, which was supposed to be developing best practice, also allowed the company to gain approval from Brazilian regulators to release 16 million GM mosquitoes before draft regulations on the release of GM insects had been finalised or adopted, without publishing a risk assessment.

The report also outlines how Oxitec influences regulation around the world, which include:

  • Attempts to define ‘biological containment’ of the insects (which are programmed to die at the larval stage) as contained use, by passing requirements for risk assessments and consultation on decisions to release GM insects into the environment.
  • Attempts to avoid any regulation of GM agricultural pests on crops which will end up in the food chain.
  • Avoidance of any discussion of how GM insects can be contained at a site, or products produced using GM insects can be labelled
  • Exclusion of many important issues from risk assessments, including impacts of surviving GM mosquitoes on the environment and health, and impacts of changing mosquito populations on human immunity and disease
  • Failure to follow trans-boundary notification process for exports of GM insects correctly
  • Undermining the requirement to obtain informed consent for experiments involving insect species with transmit disease
  • Attempts to avoid liability for any harm if anything goes wrong
  • Pushing ahead with large-scale open releases of GM mosquitoes before relevant guidance or regulations are adopted

For some people, it’s hard to make sense of such programs, which is why other theories begin to emerge regarding measures like this. Not much is known about the release of billions of these insects that have occurred over the past several years.

This article (US EPA Set To Release Billions More Genetically Modified Mosquitoes) was originally published on The Pulse and is published under a Creative Commons license.

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