Update (12/07/2017): France’s High Council for Biotechnology (HCB) has also backed the use, with caution, of genetically modified mosquitoes in France. Oxitec expects the report published by the HCB will help shape the policy to regulate the genetically engineered insects in France and eventually allow testing the technology in the French Caribbean. 


Originally published on 07/07/2017

A risk evaluation has ruled Oxitec’s genetically modified mosquitoes safe to be released in a Dutch territory, but is the EU really willing to adopt GM insects?

The Netherlands is considering releasing Oxitec’s genetically modified mosquitoes to fight dengue, chikungunya and zika in Saba, a Dutch Caribbean island. A report published today by The National Institute of Public Health and the Environment (RIVM) concludes the release of the mosquitoes would not pose any risks to human health and the environment.

The risk evaluation looked into what effects the mosquitoes could have in the local ecosystem’s food chain, as for example whether the reduction of the mosquito population would remove an important food source to other species or whether accidentally swallowing genetically modified mosquitoes could affect human health. RIVM concludes that these risks are negligible, and just recommends monitoring the released mosquitoes until all disappear.

Oxitec’s genetically modified mosquitoes are males that carry a self-limiting gene, making their offspring die. Trials carried out in Brazil, the US, Panama and India have demonstrated this approach can eliminate over 90% of mosquitoes, as compared to the 35% achieved by pesticides.

Oxitec genetically modified mosquitoes Netherlands

Although everything indicates Oxitec is clear to go ahead, GM adoption is very challenging in Europe. Despite risk assessments proving GMOs safe, there is only one GM crop approved for culture in Europe, a BT maize resistant to insects grown mainly in Spain. This approval dates back to 1998, before the current GMO regulations were approved.

On top of that, genetically engineered insects are a completely new technology that regulatory authorities worldwide are still not prepared to deal with. “The challenges are huge, really,” Hadyn Parry, CEO of Oxitec, told me in an interview last month. “We’re always the first in any country in the world to say: Can we release genetically engineered mosquitoes?” 

Oxitec already tried to bring an engineered insect to Europe to reduce the population of an olive fly species that massively affects the yield and quality of olive oil. After a first submission to start a caged trial in Catalonia, Spain, the company had to withdraw its application since regulators asked for additional experiments that significantly raised the costs of the trials. Oxitec has opted to prepare a new submission that complies with all the requisites, so though it’s been delayed, the technology might finally, and despite all challenges, come to Europe.


Images via Alexander Penyushkin, Valerio Pardi / Shutterstock

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