The claim: A British biotech company called Oxitec has permission to release genetically modified mosquitoes in Florida and Texas.
The Environmental Protection Agency approved an experimental use permit May 1 that allows Oxitec to release genetically modified mosquitoes in the Florida Keys and Harris County, Texas, where Houston is located.
“To meet today’s public health challenges head-on, the nation needs to facilitate innovation and advance the science around new tools and approaches to better protect the health of all Americans,” according to the EPA’s news release.
The permit, which lasts for two years, requires Oxitec to “monitor and sample the mosquito population weekly.”
“EPA has also maintained the right to cancel the (permit) at any point during the 24-month period if unforeseen outcomes occur,” according to the release.
Wait. Why would a company create a new kind of mosquito? What purpose does it serve?
Remember a few years ago when people – especially pregnant women – were concerned about contracting the Zika virus?
It’s the virus that could cause a birth defect called microcephaly (underdevelopment of the head and brain), according to the Centers for Disease Control.
Well, Oxitec claims its Aedes aegypti mosquito (known as the OX5034) can drastically reduce the spread of Zika as well as dengue, chikungunya and yellow fever.
Here’s how it works
Male mosquitoes don’t bite; they feed on flower nectar. Basically, male mosquitoes are harmless to humans. But female mosquitoes use blood to grow their eggs.
Oxitec created a male mosquito with a special gene that prevents female offspring from surviving to adulthood. The new males grow up, mate with more females and over time the number of Aedes Aegypti declines.
“Continual, large-scale releases of these OX5034 GM males should eventually cause the temporary collapse of a wild population,” according to Oxitec.
In Brazil, which suffered a Zika outbreak in 2015 and 2016, the company claims its “friendly” mosquitoes reduced the population of Aedes Aegypti by 89% to 96%.
Is there opposition to these genetically modified mosquitoes?
Introduction into the US
Oxitec has been trying to make Florida the first U.S. test site for its “friendly” mosquitoes for nearly a decade.
The company came close in 2016, but local officials in Monroe County (the Florida Keys) ultimately voted no. Oxitec pulled its request and decided to try again with what it described as an upgraded version of the mosquito. That’s what the EPA approved May 1.
Before weekly mosquito releases can start, however, the Florida Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services and the Florida Keys Mosquito Control District have to approve.
The Florida Keys Environmental Coalition hopes to persuade officials to vote no again.
"We have repeatedly asked for Oxitec to work with us to prove the technology is safe," Barry Wray, executive director of the Florida Keys Environmental Coalition, said in a statement in 2018 after Oxitec applied for its second permit.
"Instead of receiving Oxitec's cooperation to provide this confidence, we have witnessed a pattern of avoidance, misrepresentations, obfuscations and using marketing and political influence to persuade the regulatory and community stakeholders to proceed with what is truly a poorly designed experiment on our public and ecosystems," Wray said.
The Texas releases aren’t scheduled until 2021.
Our ruling: True
The claim that the federal government has given permission for a company to release genetically modified mosquitoes in Florida and Texas is TRUE. But the permits still need local approval.
Our fact check sources:EPA Approves Experimental Use Permit to Test Innovative Biopesticide Tool to Better Protect Public Health Oxitec Our Technology Oxitec Brazil NPR, "Why Zika Is Especially Hard On The Women Of Brazil" NPR, "Florida Keys Approves Trial Of Genetically Modified Mosquitoes To Fight Zika" Florida Keys Environmental Coalition, "Petitioning the U.S. Senate: Say No to Genetically Modified Mosquitoes Release in the Florida Keys"
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