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A British company has sparked fury after releasing genetically modified mosquitoes into the wild that critics say could produce new strains of super-mozzies.
UK-based Oxitec say they've hacked the insects' genetic make up and hope it will ultimately kill off all-female offspring wiping out huge colonies of the bug.
Mosquitoes are some of the deadliest creatures in the world with mosquito-borne diseases killing around a million people every year.
In time, Oxitec argue, the hybrids could wipe out mosquito-borne diseases like dengue and yellow fever.
But the experimental release in California and Florida Keys, an island chain at the very tip of Florida in the U.S. has angered critics.
Many fear that the altered insects will mate with native mosquitos and produce a more aggressive fast-breeding strain.
One critic – Jaydee Hanson of the Center for Food Safety (CFS) – said, "This experiment is unnecessary and even dangerous, as there are no locally acquired cases of dengue, yellow fever, chikungunya or Zika in California.
"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."
Funded by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, the firm, Oxitec, has claimed positive results, saying further tests with bigger releases are needed to determine whether the wild population of the winged pests can be thereby suppressed.
Zika virus transmission and symptoms as study reveals danger of mutation
Oxitec's August 2021 application to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency was approved to release nearly 5 million of the modified mosquitos into the Florida Keys so as to reduce transmission of Chikungunya, Dengue fever, Yellow fever, and Zika virus, all of which can be deadly.
Common in over 120 countries, Dengue fever is caused by a virus and has a low incidence of death.
In 2010 and 2020, the Florida Keys had outbreaks of dengue fever. In 2020, facing 72 locally transmitted cases, the Florida Keyes Mosquito Control District authorities approved the Oxitec trial after public input.
In March, U.S. federal authorities extended their approval of the mass release of GE mosquitoes in four counties of California, and in Monroe County, Florida, including the tropical islands of the Florida Keys.
Aedes aegypti, the mosquito species at the centre of the experiement only makes up four per cent of the mosquito population in the Florida Keys.
On the other hand, Aedes taeniorhynchus or black salt marsh species represents approximately 80 per cent of the mosquitos on the islands, and are not part of the Oxitec study.
In theory, when the modified males mate with wild females, the resulting female offspring will die before they can reproduce.
In turn, male offspring live on to carry the lethal gene and pass it down to half of their progeny; with each successive generation, more females will die and the A. aegypti population should shrink, if all goes according to plan.
Citizens groups and lobbies have opposed the release of such genetically engineered (GE) organisms. Oxitec has received an extension of a federal government permit for its experiments but is awaiting approval for state agencies in California and Florida.
In California, the experiments have been met with opposition.
In a statement released by the Center for Food Safety, Angel Garcia said, "My community does not want to become a human experiment for this genetically engineered mosquito trial."
The statement noted that California does not have any cases of transmission of Yellow fever, dengue, Chikungunya, or Zika.
CFS's Jaydee Hanson added: "Other public health strategies, including the use of Wolbachia-infected mosquitoes, could better control the Aedes aegypti in California and Florida."
Hanson described Oxitec's trial as a case of "gee-whiz-ism."
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