The British biotech company Oxitec is moving ahead with its controversial plan to release hundreds of millions of gene-hacked mosquitoes, an experimental new form of targeted pest control, in the Florida Keys.
The goal is essentially to introduce a new genetically altered version of the Aedes aegypti mosquito — which can spread diseases like dengue and malaria — that can only hatch male, non-biting offspring, in order to gradually reduce the population.
A connection that has gone mostly unremarked during the experiment's rollout is the involvement of Microsoft co-founder and public health philanthropist Bill Gates in the funding of the company, confirmed by Oxitec back in 2018, through the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.
Based on past reports, it seems that the Gates Foundation pledged about $4.1 million to Oxitec in 2018 to develop a new mosquito that would target malaria in the Americas, South Asia, and eastern Africa. Oxitec was also reportedly awarded $5 million for its Aedes mosquitoes — the kind set for release in Florida — through the Gates Foundation's Global Grand Challenges initiative in 2010. Meanwhile, Science Magazine reported in 2010 that the Gates Foundation had dished out $19.7 million for a project in which Oxitec took part.
We've reached out to both Oxitec and the Gates Foundation for clarification about the relationship.
Gates' involvement complicates the already much-criticized initiative. On the one hand, the experiment could lead to an extraordinary way to control disease, potentially saving hundreds of thousands of lives per year. But critics say it could fail, backfire, or open up the doors to more troubling applications of the technology. And the idea that one of the world's wealthiest people can help push through gene-editing experiments that are unleashed on the open ecosystem is, to say the least, a touchy subject.
Eradicating malaria has long been high on the list of Gates' priorities. His philanthropic investment foundation has been pouring money into various fields like malaria vaccine research for years, and he's been pushing for the idea of using genetically modified mosquitoes to eliminate the disease since 2016. That's just one year after Oxitec finished its first mass mosquito release in Brazil.
"Genetically-modified mosquitoes are showing promise in controlling other vector-borne diseases, so we look forward to exploring their use alongside complementary interventions for malaria," Gates Foundation malaria director Philip Welkhoff said in a press release at the time.
Let's be clear. Gates has often been a magnet for totally unsubstantiated conspiracy theories, when in reality he's contributed billions to worthy causes during his second act as a philanthropist. But he's also sometimes been criticized for making poor public health calls, as when he recently argued that the US shouldn't share COVID-19 vaccine formulas with poorer countries. In this case of Florida, some aspects of the gene-edited mosquito release seem rushed, poorly communicated, and badly received by local residents.
As Futurism previously reported, the mosquito release in Florida is fiercely opposed by a significant portion of the local community, as well as outside activists and experts — though many say that with better controls and more advance research, they'd be more open to the trial in their community.
But for now, critics say there are scientific flaws with Oxitec's plan for the Florida release and insufficient safety testing. There's no independently-vetted evidence that the mosquitoes will actually reduce disease transmission in Florida or that they won't cause new problems of their own in the environment. Many in the community say they feel the experiment is being forced on them with no way to opt out other than packing up and leaving the area.
"I find this criminal, that we are being bullied into this experiment," said one resident at a recent town council meeting. "I find it criminal that we are being subjected to this terrorism by our own Florida Keys Mosquito Control Board."
READ MORE: Gates Foundation and Oxitec Fight Malaria with Genetically-Modified Mosquitoes [Labiotech]
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