NCPA - National Center for Policy Analysis

Will the FDA Approve Genetic Engineering to Kill Mosquitos?

October 10, 2014

Each of the 48 contiguous states saw cases of West Nile virus last year, with 119 deaths out of 2,469 reported cases. So far in 2014, 1,177 West Nile cases have been reported.

As Henry I. Miller of the Hoover Institution and attorney John Cohrssen explain, mosquitos carry a number of different diseases, not only West Nile virus, but yellow fever, dengue fever and the chikungunya virus. These viruses are deadly, and they cause sufferers severe pain and suffering. Chikungunya is especially concerning, as it has spread like wildfire throughout the Caribbean and has found its way into almost every U.S. state so far this year.

These often deadly bugs are made all the more concerning by their ability to breed rapidly, explain Miller and Cohrssen. There are no vaccines or drugs to treat the illnesses caused by mosquito bites, and treating the bugs with toxic pesticides can be extremely costly. While many insect populations have been reduced through the "sterile insect technique," or SIT, mosquitos lack the right properties for SIT to be successful.

There is, however, another way to combat the spread of these fatal viruses: genetic engineering. In fact, a company in the United Kingdom, Oxitec, has already created an approach to control mosquito populations. According to Miller and Cohrssen, only female mosquitos bite, so controlling the mosquito population requires a focus on the male, not female, mosquitos. To that end, Oxitec scientists created a genetic mutation that leads male mosquitos to require certain nutrients in order to live. When those mosquitos mate, they lose those nutrients and die. Meanwhile, their offspring inherit the genetic mutation. As they breed, they pass the genes along, and the population drops precipitously.

What's the problem? Securing FDA approval. Government regulation is always expensive, especially when it comes to genetic engineering. Accoridng to Miller and Cohrssen, despite molecular genetic engineering being "far more precise and predictable" than older techniques, the government is stringent in its regulation of the new techniques. The FDA requires genetically engineered animals to meet the same standards it requires for new veterinary drugs, which means years of review. For example:

  • When one company applied to market a protein that would increase dairy cows' milk production, the FDA took nine years before it issued approval.
  • Almost two decades ago, the FDA received an application for salmon that would mature far more quickly than others. Only two years ago did it recommend the technique go forward. Since then, the Obama administration has blocked the agency from issuing approval.

Miller and Cohrssen encourage the agency to consider the fatal nature of many of these mosquito-borne illnesses and engage in "enlightened, responsible regulation" when it considers these new methods of insect control.

Source: John J. Cohrssen and Henry I. Miller, "How Many Regulators Does It Take to Kill A Mosquito?", October 8, 2014.  


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