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March 9, 2022

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has approved the release of 2 billion genetically altered mosquitoes in Florida and California, the company that created the genetically modified mosquitoes said.

The experimental program created by Oxitec is designed to reduce the transmission of harmful diseases such as dengue, Zika, and yellow fever.

The program is an extension of one in which millions of mosquitoes were released last year in the Florida Keys, USA Today reported. State agencies in Florida and California will have to approve the programs before the releases occur.

The aim of the program is to reduce cases of diseases like yellow fever by killing off the offspring of a common kind of mosquito, Aedes aegypti, which spreads diseases through its bite.

Scientists at Oxitec, which is based in the United Kingdom, mass produce and genetically modify male Aedes aegypti eggs in a lab. These male mosquitoes will be released into the wild to mate with females and pass along a gene that will kill the female offspring, which are the only ones that bite and spread disease. The male offspring live on.

“Given the growing health threat this mosquito poses across the U.S., we’re working to make this technology available and accessible,” Grey Frandsen, CEO of Oxitec, said in a news release. “These pilot programs, wherein we can demonstrate the technology’s effectiveness in different climate settings, will play an important role in doing so.”

However, environmental groups have criticized the program, saying there’s a lack of peer-reviewed scientific data from the Florida Keys experiment. The Friends of the Earth say there have been no locally acquired cases of dengue, yellow fever, chikungunya, or Zika in California.

“EPA needs to do a real review of potential risks and stop ignoring widespread opposition in the communities where releases will happen,” Dana Perls, food and technology program manager at Friends of the Earth, said in a news release.

“Once released into the environment, genetically engineered mosquitoes cannot be recalled,” said Robert Gould, president of San Francisco Bay Physicians for Social Responsibility, said in the news release. “Rather than forge ahead with an unregulated open-air genetic experiment, we need precautionary action, transparent data and appropriate risk assessments.”

Meredith Fensom, head of global public affairs at Oxitec, told USA Today that the EPA approved the program for one Florida and four California counties. However, the launch will be limited at first to the Florida Keys and expanding to Visalia in Tulare County, Calif.

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