Another new ethical dilemma – but nothing could go wrong, right?

As a survivor of malaria, I have a special place for mosquitos. I also understand somewhat the public policy behind removing health risks associated with those little buggers (pun intended).

When new technologies surface (or I stumble on them), I pay attention. Well, there’s one that I should have know about and is now going ‘big time’ in Florida (no surprise).

Here’s the gist … or the urgency behind recent publication (Grist), quote: “In May, the EPA granted a two-year experimental use permit, which the agency can cancel at any time. State and local sign-off soon followed — finally giving the project the greenlight.”

The technology, quoted:

At Oxitec’s laboratory in the U.K., the company genetically engineers the mosquitoes, giving the insects the “self-limiting” gene that makes the females dependent on the antibiotic tetracycline. Without the drug, they will die. Eggs from these genetically-altered mosquitoes — which will hatch both male and female insects — will be shipped to the Keys. Mosquitoes require water to mature from an egg to an adult; when Oxitec’s team adds water to the boxes the mosquitoes will be deployed in, both GM males and GM females will hatch. With no tetracycline present in the box, the GM females are expected to die in early larval stages.

The male mosquitoes will survive and carry the gene. When they leave the boxes, the insects will, hypothetically, fly away to mate with wild females to pass the gene to the next wild generation, according to Nathan Rose, head of regulatory affairs at Oxitec. Kevin Gorman, the company’s chief development officer, says the local female mosquito population will be increasingly reduced — which will also reduce the number of wild male mosquitoes in the treatment areas.

That sounds complicated and riddled with some assumptions that I do not think neither entropy nor Murphy would confirm. The company has a history, quote:

Oxitec has released more than a billion of their OX513A mosquitoes over the past 10 years. According to independent scientists, some of those experiments did not go well.

For example, researchers at Yale University and collaborators from Brazil analyzed Oxitec’s 2015 release of OX513A in Brazil. The scientists confirmed that some offspring of the genetically modified mosquitoes — which were supposed to die and not pass new genes to the wild population — survived to adulthood and mated with their native counterparts. Between 10 and 60 percent of the native mosquitoes contained genes from Oxitec, according to the Yale study, which published in Nature in 2019. The paper’s authors concluded they do not know what impacts these mixed mosquitoes have on disease control or transmission, but added that their findings underscore the importance of monitoring the genetics of the insects.

Nothing could go wrong, right?

What bothers me most is that the unintended consequences of this action are neither well understood nor discussed openly in a public forum. This is a public ethical dilemma that merits discussion not acquiescence.

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