Disease-fighting GMO mosquitoes are coming. Was EPA too quick to approve them?

mosquito NationalGeographic
Credit: JOEL SARTORE, NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC CREATIVE

[In May], the US Environmental Protection Agency approved the release of genetically modified mosquitoes. Under a 2-year Experimental Use Permit, a company called Oxitec has been granted permission to release over 1 billion genetically modified mosquitoes across 6,600 acres in Florida and Texas.

Oxitec hopes to demonstrate through field trials that their latest GM mosquito strain can reduce local populations of Aedes aegypti — the mosquito species that transmits dengue fever, yellow fever, chikungunya, and the Zika virus.

EPA approval of the release of this new GM mosquito is just the first step toward Oxitec selling its proprietary mosquito to US mosquito-control boards, and by extension US taxpayers. Oxitec intends to deploy its GM mosquitoes in and around the Florida Keys and near Houston.

With our combined scientific and policy expertise, neither of us is anti-genetically modified organisms. We eat GM foods and believe that GM technologies can have significant benefits to public health — but only if they are used safely and fairly. The environmental introduction of the first GM mosquito in the United States is a landmark decision. Its public health, ecosystem, and societal risks and benefits should be carefully weighed.

Related article:  Bureaucracy hampers GMO Bt insect-resistant cotton approval in the Philippines, despite widespread demand from farmers

[Editor’s note: Natalie Kofler is founder of Editing Nature and an adviser for the Scientific Citizenship Initiative at Harvard Medical School. Jennifer Kuzma is a professor in the School of Public and International Affairs and co-director of the Genetic Engineering and Society Center.]

And herein lies our concern: Risks should not be assessed behind closed doors between technology developers and EPA employees. As designed, the EPA risk assessment process privileges private entities over the American public.

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