Why It Took Over 20 Years To Get Bacteria To Fight Mosquitoes - And Then Get EPA Approval

By Hank Campbell — Nov 08, 2017
Science struggles in a regulatory environment that increasingly puts the precautionary principle over benefit, and regulators that cater to environmental groups that view science as some corporate conspiracy.

A salmon that grows slightly faster than other salmon, an apple that doesn't start turning brown the minute you cut it into pieces and a way to use nature to keep mosquitoes from giving developing nations horrific diseases. What they all share in common is onerous scientific development, but in the case of the mosquito they don't share the onerous approval cycle.(1) 

That is the struggle science faces in a regulatory environment that has increasingly put the precautionary principle over benefit, and government bodies that increasingly cater to environmental groups that regard science as some sort of corporate conspiracy.

Yet things look like they are improving. The Arctic Apple is shipping in the Midwest right now, the U.S. FDA set a record for approval of new useful products in a single year back in August, and now after decades of international scientific effort, a new mosquito biopesticide (a pesticide that uses natural bactera) has been approved. And it only took a year and a half to get a sign-off.

This technology is MosquitoMate and it targets mosquito species which spread, among other things, the Zika virus. Males of the species do not bite people, so they are perfectly safe from even the wackiest Frankenmosquito concerns about imbuing humans with science. The new approved biopesticide is males infected with a strain of the Wolbachia bacterium (naturally occurring and common in most insect species), when they mate with females the offspring do not survive. Most importantly, Wolbachia-infected mosquitoes can't carry the dengue virus.

One microbe stops the other. It's brilliant. 

And a terrific way to reduce insect populations without the chemicals that environmental groups claim to be against. Yet this sort of boost for a natural process is exactly what activists oppose. They distrust chemistry, they distrust biology. They do, however, trust bracelets proven not to work. Citronella candles are scant protection from Zika. 

The company, MosquitoMate, Inc. was not alone in pursuing this technology. In 2012, NPR wrote about Australian Scott O'Neill, who had spent 20 years trying to develop it for commercial use. Mosquitoes won't just get the bacteria, the team had to inject it into the embryos manually. Then they had to wait a week to see if it took. Sometimes 18,000 embryos had no successful uptake.

The developers from the University of Kentucky are to be applauded for seeing this through. Science is hard. Navigating regulatory approval is even harder.

It is being allowed under a time-limited registration in California, Connecticut, Delaware, District of Columbia, Illinois, Indiana, Kentucky, Massachusetts, Maine, Maryland, Missouri, New Hampshire, New Jersey, Nevada, New York, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, Tennessee, Vermont, and West Virginia. The states will still need to register it so it will be interesting to see which do not. If you have read my book Science Left Behind, you can probably predict which states will simply run out the clock and fail to register these mosquitoes at all.


(1) Onerous despite the fact that there is obvious upside to farmed fish that grow faster because one popular salmon gets a gene from a similar salmon that just grows faster. Fish is healthy and faster farming means wild stocks won't be depleted. With apples, food waste will be reduced if apples don't look rotten. Less Dengue and Zika are obviously good. What they all share in common is controversy but no risk.

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