Millions Of Insects Have Been Engineered In A Lab – And Scientists Plan To Set Them Free In America

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In the United Kingdom, scientists at a biotech firm named Oxitec had been busy in their laboratories, genetically engineering millions of mosquitoes. And in May 2020 they were given the green-light to let them out in certain American states. According to the experts, these bugs would have an important job over the next couple of years.

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While some people have a real fear of insects, the vast majority of creepy-crawlies don’t pose much of a threat. The same can’t be said about mosquitoes, though, as these bugs are famous for consuming the blood of whoever they bite. So on that note, Oxitec’s plan is sure to concern plenty of individuals.

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In total, Oxitec is looking to set around 750 million mosquitoes free across two different states in America. As we suggested earlier, each of those insects will have been genetically altered before entering the environment, joining the other species. And at the very least, this process is scheduled to last for two years.

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As for the selected states, Florida agreed to go first in the summer of 2020, targeting the Florida Keys. From there, Harris County, Texas, is set to follow suit a few months later, at the start of 2021. And if all goes to plan, the engineered mosquitoes could have a huge impact going forward.

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In America alone, there are said to be 176 different kinds of mosquito roaming around. To give that number some context, The American Mosquito Control Association website noted that more than 3,000 types have been recorded globally. But one species in particular has thrived in certain parts of the country.

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The mosquito in question is the Aedes aegypti. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention website, that species had the potential to spread through a large number of states back in 2017. The projections suggested that places like Texas, Georgia, Florida and the Carolinas were all at risk.

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For you see, Aedes aegypti mosquitoes carry a host of troublesome diseases, which are subsequently passed on when they feed. One of those is the Zika virus. As per the National Health Service’s website, that medical ailment doesn’t usually cause complications in patients, but it can still be problematic for a time.

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Indeed, if a person develops symptoms of the Zika virus, they could be forced to deal with it for up to a week. The signs include skin irritation, aches in muscles and joints, a temperature and an uncomfortable feeling around the eyes. However, certain individuals are at a higher risk of suffering more serious issues.

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For instance, expectant mothers can be placed in that particular group. If they contract the Zika virus, their child might develop issues such as microcephaly. Babies with that condition are born with a very small cranium, which could affect their brain function going forward. It’s sometimes also called congenital Zika syndrome.

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Meanwhile, Aedes aegypti mosquitoes are known to spread yellow fever as well. According to the WebMD website, this virus normally affects people in three different “phases” after they’re bitten. The site claims that plenty of sufferers don’t experience much beyond the first of those stages, which resembles a “flu-like” infection.

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After that, the second phase is referred to as remission, as sufferers start to get better over the next two days. Sadly, though, up to 25 percent of them won’t complete that step successfully, leading to the final stage. The website notes that this is the most dangerous period of yellow fever.

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By that point, the disease could cause issues such as hepatitis, hemorrhaging and jaundice. The latter condition induces a yellow-like shade to your skin due to liver damage, which gives the virus its name. In addition, the third phase can also affect other organs as well as the body’s cardiovascular system.

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If patients get to this particular stage, their chances of survival are quite literally 50/50, with the World Health Organization backing that up. In total, the agency predicts that roughly 200,000 people around the globe catch yellow fever every 12 months. About 30,000 of them go on to lose their lives.

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Alongside those conditions, Aedes aegypti mosquitoes also carry another harmful disease called dengue fever. As per the CDC’s website, this virus is prominent in over 100 nations, but it went on to make an intriguing point. Apparently, only a quarter of the individuals who contract the illness will become poorly.

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If you’re in that group, the symptoms usually range from mild skin irritation to pain and aching throughout your body. The organization’s website states that these problems should subside after a few days. In a worst case scenario, though, the virus can lead to another ailment known as “severe dengue.”

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The CDC notes that severe dengue could be fatal, as it sparks internal hemorrhaging. Once again, expectant mothers are in danger of that particular complication, as are young children. Overall, the health agency reports that 22,000 people pass away from the sickness every year, while 400 million individuals pick it up.

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Elsewhere, different mosquito species are known to spread other diseases as well, such as the West Nile virus and malaria. The latter ailment is still very dangerous, with the CDC predicting that, globally, 405,000 patients lost their lives to it in 2018. However, only five people are said to die from the illness in America every year.

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So keeping that in mind, you might be feeling a little concerned by Oxitec’s strategy to let 750 million mosquitoes loose in the United States. But as we highlighted earlier, these insects will all be genetically engineered ahead of their arrival in Florida and Texas. Their scientific code name is “OX5034.”

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The OX5034 is a modified Aedes aegypti mosquito that carries a certain molecule in its body. The scientists at Oxitec specifically worked on male test subjects, as they could then pass on that protein to their larvae through female mates. After that, the purpose behind their efforts would eventually come to light.

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For you see, that molecule should lead to the death of the OX5034’s female offspring. The CNN website reported that these young specimens would pass away during the early phase of their development. Meanwhile, their male counterparts were set to hatch in the wild as per normal, avoiding the same fate.

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Upon their arrival, though, these young male mosquitoes would share the genetic alteration that the original OX5034 insects had. So as a result of that, the cycle could continue for the foreseeable future, with the protein culling the female populace. The plan itself isn’t particularly new, as Oxitec has focused on this matter for several years.

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Oxitec first dipped its toes into the study of Aedes aegypti mosquitoes back in 2012. During that time, the firm’s scientists genetically altered a different batch of male test subjects, calling them “OX513A.” Unlike the later experiment, these insects were designed to pass away at an earlier age than normal.

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But if the OX513A mosquitoes did manage to find a female partner, their children would subsequently take on the same genetic structure. Regardless of the bugs’ gender, their lifespan mirrored that of their patriarch. However, those plans were eventually upended by the OX5034 experiments, which led to a big moment for Oxitec.

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In May 2020 the United States Environmental Protection Agency, or EPA, gave Oxitec the green-light to release the OX5034s. The organization confirmed the news via a press release to the public. And in that statement, the biotech company unveiled the biggest reason why these mosquitoes could be beneficial to Americans.

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The statement read, “After extensive evaluation of the best available science and public input, the EPA has granted an experimental use permit (EUP) to Oxitec to field test the use of genetically engineered Aedes aegypti mosquitoes.” Those flying insects would work as “a way to reduce mosquito populations to protect public health from mosquito-borne illnesses.”

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The press release continued, “The nation needs to facilitate innovation, and advance the science around new tools and approaches to better protect the health of all Americans. After all appropriate approvals are garnered, the EPA looks forward to receiving field test results regarding the effectiveness of this promising new tool that could help combat the spread of diseases like the Zika virus.”

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On that note, you might be wondering how the OX5034 mosquitoes could potentially curb the spread. Well, as it turns out, it’s just the female insects that draw blood, using it to develop their unhatched offspring. The males get their sustenance from nectar, so they don’t bite people and pass on the diseases that we spoke about earlier.

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Therefore, by taking out the female mosquitoes before birth, the OX5034s could ultimately protect the population. But while the EPA recognized that possibility, it took another month or so before Florida followed suit. In the end, the state’s Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services rubber-stamped the project in June 2020.

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Unsurprisingly, the scientists at Oxitec were delighted with the EPA’s decision, as the company’s boss shared his thoughts in May 2020. Indeed, Grey Frandsen released a statement of his own, detailing why this experiment was so important to him and his colleagues. In the CEO’s mind, everyone stood to benefit if it worked.

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Frandsen said, “Winning the growing war against disease-spreading mosquitoes will require a new generation of safe, targeted and sustainable tools for governments and communities alike. Our aim is to empower governments and communities of all sizes to effectively, and sustainably, control these disease-spreading mosquitoes without [causing a] harmful impact on the environment.”

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Frandsen’s online statement continued, “We are very thankful for the EPA’s efforts. And we look forward to continuing our close collaboration. We will continue our work with state regulators in the coming months in their approval processes, and with our local government and community partners as we move forward together.”

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At that stage, Frandsen made one final point to cap things off. He added, “This is an exciting development because it represents the ground-breaking work of hundreds of passionate people over more than a decade in multiple countries. [We] all want to protect communities from dengue, Zika, yellow fever, and other vector-borne diseases.”

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Not everyone was pleased with the EPA’s decision, though, as a number of groups came together to voice their concerns. Some of those individuals even traveled to the Florida Keys Mosquito Control District building to contest the experiment in June 2020. But the most significant move was made just a few days before that.

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You see, several conservation groups threatened to file a lawsuit against the EPA during that period. They claimed that the organization ignored the effect that the experiment could have on endangered animals. Speaking after the event, a representative from Friends of the Earth U.S. shared a strongly-worded statement online.

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Dana Perls said, “The Florida Keys and Houston, and the surrounding communities, are home to some of the most diverse and threatened species in our country. Once again, the [government] is callously disregarding scientific experts and the will of communities to force this risky experiment through.” Those views were also shared by another individual, who made a colorful comparison.

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Jaydee Hanson of the International Center for Technology Assessment and Center for Food Safety said, “With all the urgent crises facing our nation, the administration has used tax dollars and government resources for a Jurassic Park experiment. What could possibly go wrong? We don’t know, because they unlawfully refused to seriously analyze environmental risks.”

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Meanwhile, a local resident offered their views while talking to Britain’s The Guardian newspaper in June 2020. According to Barry Wray, the public’s opinion has skewed in a single direction. The Florida Keys Environmental Coalition representative claimed, “People here in Florida do not consent to the genetically engineered mosquitoes or to being human experiments.”

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The response might not have been that surprising to Oxitec, though, as its first experiment garnered a similar reaction in 2012. Back then, the OX513A mosquitoes were said to be fulfilling their purpose of thinning out the Aedes aegypti population during the testing stage. The bugs were released in Panama, the Cayman Islands and Brazil.

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To give you an idea of the figures, Oxitec noted that the mosquitoes’ numbers were down by 95 percent in a Brazilian community chosen for the study. However, its plan to roll out the OX513As in Florida Keys was met with a furious reaction. While local officials had originally asked for the company’s assistance, the residents quickly voiced their disapproval.

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With that in mind, a petition was created on the Change.org website, decrying Oxitec’s looming presence. The page has been kept open for the last eight years, as people continue to sign it today to showcase their opposition. At the time of writing, it’s accumulated more than 233,000 signatures. Will the mosquitoes appear? Only time will tell…

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