Oxitec wins approval to release GMO mosquitoes in US

By Joan Conrow

June 17, 2020

Oxitec has received state and federal approval to release genetically modified (GM) mosquitoes in a pilot project planned for the Florida Keys now through 2022.

The research is intended to show that GM mosquitoes are a viable alternative to spraying insecticides in a bid to control the invasive Aedes aegypti mosquito that spreads Zika, dengue, yellow fever and other diseases.

The United State Environmental Protection Agency granted its approval last month, with the State of Florida issuing an Experimental Use Permit yesterday after seven state agencies unanimously gave the project a nod. Oxitec, a US-owned company, has been working with the local mosquito control district in Florida for over a decade in designing and preparing for a pilot project.

The project employs Oxitec’s “Friendly” mini-capsule technology, which works by using a proprietary system the company developed to hold the eggs of its non-biting, self-limiting Aedes aegypti males. When placed in a small box of water, the capsule releases the males, which then disperse to mate with wild-type female Aedes aegypti in an area of up to two or more acres. Because the males contain a self-limiting gene, the offspring they produce do not live to maturity, thus naturally suppressing the population. This will be the first time that “Friendly” mosquitoes are released in the US.

“There is broad consensus amongst public health officials in the US that a new generation of safe, targeted and cost-effective vector control tools are needed urgently to combat the growing threat posed by Aedes aegypti without impacting the ecosystem,” said Grey Frandsen, CEO of Oxitec, in a press release. “We’re pleased that the EPA and Florida state regulators have, after extensive scientific reviews, approved our demonstration trials and we look forward to continuing the collaboration with our local partners as they take up the matter.”

The “Friendly” technology has already been approved for use in Brazil following a successful pilot project there. The Brazil research, conducted in close partnership with the City of Indaiatuba, found the method successfully suppressed 95 percent of the Aedes aegypti mosquito population in the targeted urban environment after just 13 weeks of treatment, without the use of insecticides.

Despite the technology’s demonstrated human health and environmental benefits, Friends of the Earth, GMO Free USA, Center for Food Safety and other groups filed an intent to sue the EPA over its issuance of the permits. The groups have a history of suing government agencies over GM-related issues as they can promote the lawsuits for fundraising purposes and under the Equal Access to Justice Act, collect legal fees even if they lose the case.

The groups contend the EPA violated the Endangered Species Act when issuing the permit, but federal and state regulators carried out exhaustive scientific reviews that confirmed the “Friendly” mosquitoes pose no risks to human health or the environment, including fish and other aquatic life, birds, bats, plants, invertebrates or endangered species. The EPA published its complete risk assessment, its reviews of the planned pilot program and its 150-page response to all substantive public comments.

“This is the only method ever developed that can reduce the numbers of just one mosquito species without killing all the other kinds of mosquitoes,” noted Dr. Charles M. Rader, an electronic engineer at Massachusetts Institute of Technology in a comment thread on an article about the intent to sue. “So it is the mosquito control technique which has the least effect on other animals that would eat mosquitoes. Plus, other kinds of mosquito control have very clear negative effects on the environment. Draining wetlands deprives many harmless and beneficial species of their natural habitat. Spraying poisons fills the environment with poisons, only a tiny amount of which gets to a mosquito.”

The EPA permit allows Oxitec to release the self-limiting male mosquitoes initially in the Florida Keys, with the research expanding to select areas of Texas in 2021, although Oxitec said it presently does not have plans for a project there.

The permit requires Oxitec to notify state officials 72 hours prior to releasing the insects and conduct ongoing monitoring during the active releases and for 10 weeks afterward to ensure that none of the mosquitoes reach adulthood.