Maui ‘Ground Zero’ for Release of Billions of Biopesticide Lab-Altered Mosquitoes

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According to Hawaii Unites, an environmental advocacy group that recently lost its case, 775,992,000 bacteria-infected mosquitoes could be released in Maui every week for the next two decades.

The group had filed a lawsuit in May 2023 against the state, demanding an environmental impact statement before proceeding with the contentious project.

Tina Lia, the president and founder of Hawaii Unites, shared this information with The Defender.

“These biopesticide lab-altered mosquitoes are already being released in East Maui. Hawaii Unites has taken the state to court seeking a ruling to require an environmental impact statement for the project and comprehensive studies of the risks.”

“The final environmental assessment for this project is insufficient under the Hawai‘i Environmental Policy Act,” Lia said. “[It] fails to describe mitigation measures or biosecurity protocols for the mosquitoes, and the discussion of alternatives is inadequate.”

Lia states that the Birds, Not Mosquitoes alliance has put forth a strategy to control the spread of avian malaria among native birds by targeting southern house mosquitoes.

Their approach involves preventing male mosquitoes, who harbor the Wolbachia bacterium responsible for transmitting avian malaria, from reproducing.

The technique known as Wolbachia incompatible insect technology (IIT) was previously supported by Gates Philanthropy Partners, a division of the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.

However, there is no clear connection between these organizations and the current ongoing project in Hawaii.

An expert representing Hawaii Unites cautioned that instead of reducing mosquito-borne diseases, the project might result in bacterial proliferation, the unintended spread of genetically modified mosquitoes to undesired locations, and other environmental repercussions.

But the court disagreed, ruling that the final environmental assessment “was compiled in good faith and set forth sufficient information to enable the [Board of Land and Natural Resources] to consider fully the environmental factors involved and to make a reasoned decision after balancing the risks of harm to the environment against the benefits to be derived from the proposed action.”

According to the lawsuit, “documentation and studies from several sources, including government agencies, confirm that the experiment may not even work for its intended purpose and has the potential for significant environmental impacts.”

The lawsuit also noted that the IIT method has never been tried in Hawaii, while “the specific experimental technique planned for use in East Maui has never been tried before anywhere in the world.”

According to the lawsuit, the regions of Maui where the release will take place include “the fragile ecosystems of East Maui’s Haleakalā National Park, Ko‘olau Forest Reserve, Hāna Forest Reserve, Hanawī Natural Area Reserve, Kīpahulu Forest Reserve, Makawao Forest Reserve, and Waikamoi Preserve,” as well as privately managed lands.

“At the highest frequency, this could result in over 807 billion mosquitoes released in one of the most unique and fragile ecosystems in the world,” the lawsuit stated. “Contrary to the assertions in the [final environmental assessment], the plan could actually pose serious risks to native birds, wildlife, the ‘āina, and public health.”

The motion for summary judgment filed by the State of Hawaii on Dec. 22, 2023, countered these claims.

Hawaii Unites submitted a 70-page memorandum on Jan. 9 to further elaborate their arguments, but Judge John M. Tonaki of the First Circuit Court ultimately granted summary judgment in favor of the state.

Lia stated that if the group decides to appeal Tonaki’s decision, there are “several issues” with the ruling.

She emphasized that there are significant disparities between what was proposed in the final environmental assessment and what is currently being implemented in East Maui.

For instance, Lia pointed out that the group believes mosquitoes are being released exclusively via helicopters rather than drones, which contradicts the release system outlined in the environmental assessment.

“This means that helicopters are flying closer to the tree canopy than the level stated in the FEA [final environmental assessment], increasing the potential for adverse impacts such as noise disturbances; nesting, breeding, and roosting disturbances; helicopter rotor wash; accidents and collisions; and wildland fires,” she said.

Lia claimed that Tonaki ignored the testimony of Dr. Lorrin Pang, an expert in tropical diseases and vectors who serves as the head of Hawaii’s District Health Office for Maui. Dr. Pang testified as a private citizen on behalf of Hawaii Unites, highlighting the state’s failure to thoroughly examine the potential risks associated with the project.

Lia said:

“The court failed to acknowledge Dr. Pang’s serious concerns about horizontal transmission of introduced bacteria, biopesticide wind drift of lab-altered mosquitoes into unintended areas, superinfection of mosquitoes with multiple bacteria strains, increased pathogen infection and disease-spreading capability in mosquitoes, and the experimental nature of the project — all issues that were insufficiently addressed or missing entirely from the FEA, and facts material to the lawsuit.”

Lia stated that the avian malaria phase of the state’s plan received over $30 million in funding from the U.S. Department of the Interior. Additionally, the project successfully obtained more than $14 million from the bipartisan Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act passed in 2021. Furthermore, an additional $16 million was secured through President Joe Biden’s 2023 Investing in America Agenda to Prevent the Imminent Extinction of Hawaiian Forest Birds.

“Grants, partnerships with mainland universities, and public and private funding are anticipated to incentivize the use of lab-altered mosquito technology in Hawai‘i well into the future,” she said.

The funding for Birds, Not Mosquitoes comes from a combination of public and private donors.

These include the American Bird Conservancy, Hawaiʻi Department of Land and Natural Resources, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, National Park Service, The Nature Conservancy, and the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation.

Previous funders included the Hawaiʻi Invasive Species Council and anonymous private donors. One of the project’s partners is the Kauai Forest Bird Recovery Project, which has a partnership with Corteva Agriscience.

Corteva Agriscience is a conglomerate formed from Dow AgroSciences and DuPont/Pioneer and holds numerous patents for CRISPR gene-editing technology.

It’s important to note that the mosquitoes used in this project in Hawaii are not genetically modified.

In an interview with Gates Philanthropy Partners in March 2022, Dr. Scott O’Neill, founder of the World Mosquito Program, spoke highly of Wolbachia—a bacterium currently being used in the Hawaii project.

He highlighted its safety for humans as it naturally exists in honeybees, butterflies, moths, and fruit flies—all essential parts of our food chain.

O’Neill added:

“What makes Wolbachia a medical miracle is the fact that when it is introduced into Aedes aegypti [mosquitoes], it effectively blocks the capacity of many of the viruses that make people sick from growing in the mosquito. And if the viruses can’t replicate, they can’t be transmitted to humans.

“Our team successfully introduced a strain of Wolbachia taken from fruit flies into Aedes aegypti more than a decade ago, and over the past 10 years, we have shown that when Wolbachia-carrying Aedes aegypti are released into the environment, they collapse dengue transmission in that location. We are also confident that it is effective against chikungunyaZika, and many other arboviruses based on our laboratory research.”

Lia said her group is concerned that the mosquitoes currently being released are experimental.

“The state has lied about the fact that foreign bacteria is being brought into Hawai‘i through the infection of these mosquitoes, and the mosquitoes themselves are foreign organisms that originate from outside the islands. The state has also lied about the documentation showing that up to 3,103 lab-altered female mosquitoes that bite, breed and spread disease are allowed to be released weekly on Maui,” Lia added.

“There are no biosecurity protocols for these imported mosquitoes and no mitigation plan in place if something goes wrong,” she said.

“Wolbachia bacterium is a life form, and there’s no way for this project to be self-contained. The bacteria can transmit horizontally in the environment to wild mosquitoes and other insect vectors of disease.”

“Mosquito populations on Maui might be overtaken and replaced by these lab-altered mosquitoes,” Lia said.

“What if it turns out that they are more capable of spreading disease?” Lia asked. “Southern house mosquitoes transmit human diseases including West Nile virus, encephalitis and elephantiasis, and they’re a potential vector of Zika virus.”

She added:

“Pathogen screenings for these mosquitoes are unknown, and that information is being withheld from the public. Lab-infected male mosquitoes can transmit viruses to biting females through mating. Biopesticide drift, the drift of lab-altered mosquitoes on the wind to unintended areas, could affect not only the efficacy but the safety of the project. Superinfection of mosquitoes with multiple strains of Wolbachia bacteria could also impact efficacy and safety.

“All of these mechanisms can interact with each other and cumulatively have substantial adverse effects. None of this has been studied by the Birds, Not Mosquitoes agencies releasing these mosquitoes … The scope and magnitude of this plan have potential significant impacts that could cause catastrophic effects on the health of our islands.”

Lia has reported that Hawaii Unites has initiated a fundraising campaign with the goal of collecting $30,000 by the end of the month in order to proceed with their appeal.

“If the Judge’s decision is not appealed, it will set a precedent for allowing inadequate environmental review of future proposed experimental projects that could have significant impacts to our fragile ecosystems,” Lia said.

Should an appeal go forward, Lia said her group expects “to obtain admissions from the state that proper studies have not been done to assess the risks of this project.”

“We further anticipate that documents, contracts, and communications requested from the state will reveal important details about this project that have been misrepresented to the public,” she added.

“Maui is ground zero for these mosquito releases, and our case in environmental court can set a strong precedent for stopping this agenda from moving forward here in Hawai‘i and from expanding globally,” Lia said. “This case, and our voices as a community, have a right to be heard.”

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