MUTANT mosquitoes created in a lab to stop the spread of deadly diseases like malaria will be unleashed across the US this summer.
The gene-hacked bugs, crafted by UK biotech company Oxitec, are designed to kill off or reduce local populations of mosquitoes by mating with them.
Mosquitoes carry diseases like dengue, Zika and malaria which are then passed to anyone bitten by the creepy crawlies.
While the technology has shown promise in lab experiments, experts warn the scheme could go horribly wrong out in the wild.
“These strategies hold considerable potential benefits for the hundreds of millions of people impacted by mosquito-borne diseases each year,” a group of scientists and ethicists wrote in The Conversation.
“However, we are concerned that current government oversight and scientific evaluation of genetically-modified mosquitoes do not ensure their responsible deployment.”
Oxitec’s controversial scheme was in May approved for “experimental use” in Florida and Texas by the US Environmental Protection Agency.
Starting this summer, millions of genetically-modified (GM) male mosquitoes will be released every week over the next two years.
When the lab-bred bugs are released and mate with wild females, their female offspring die.
Only female mosquitoes bite, meaning Oxitec’s male-only insects won’t spread diseases to people.
Over time, repeated, large-scale releases of the modified insects should drive the temporary collapse of wild populations.
This should halt the spread of nasty diseases carried by mosquitoes, potentially saving thousands of lives.
Mosquito-borne illnesses like malaria are on the rise in the southern United States as climate change pushes bug populations up from South America.
Scientists are concerned about the lack of oversight for Oxitec projects in Florida and Texas.
For its part, Oxitec said in a statement that the article is The Conversation contained “a number of false or baseless claims”.
The company has run into trouble before.
In Brazil, an Oxitec project spectacularly backfired after millions of the GM bugs were released into neighbourhoods in Jacobina.
Some scientists believe the project accidentally created a super-resistant mosquito species that’s tougher to kill than before.
Oxitec’s work has been heavily criticised by Friends of the Earth, a charity dedicated to protecting the environment.
Back in 2012, Friends of the Earth’s Eric Hoffman said: “Trials of its mosquitos must not move forward in the absence of comprehensive and impartial reviews of the environmental, human health and ethical risks.”
In a statement at the time, Friends of the Earth said: “The GM mosquitoes are intended to reduce the wild population by mating with naturally occurring mosquitoes and producing progeny which don’t survive, thus reducing the population and therefore the transmission of the tropical disease dengue fever.
“The company has been widely criticised for putting its commercial interests ahead of public and environmental safety.
“Its first releases of GM mosquitoes took place controversially in the Cayman Islands, where there is no biosafety law or regulation.
“Oxitec staff have been closely involved in developing risk assessment guidelines for GM insects worldwide, leading to concerns about lack of independent scrutiny and conflict of interest.”
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