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Are scientists to blame for Zika? Genetically modified mosquitos were released into Brazil in 2012

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zika-virus-photo-2.jpgAre scientists to blame for Zika? Genetically modified mosquitos were released into Brazil in 2012

Concerns have been raised scientists could be to blame for the Zika virus outbreak after genetically modified insects were released into Brazil three years ago.

Didcot-based biotechnology company Oxitec worked on the same type of mosquito that carries the virus in 2012, engineering them to have offspring that die out before they can breed, reducing the population of disease-carrying bugs.

Some scientists questioned the wisdom of the plan at the time and it has led to critics claiming the modification could have sparked the current outbreak.

But Oxitec refuted these claims and has actually been asked to expand its work in Brazil to help tackle the outbreak, opening a new mosquito facility in Piracicaba.

Chief executive Hadyn Parry labelled the claims as 'simply untrue'.

He added: 'All vector control solutions - insecticides, traps, and 'sterile' mosquitoes get deployed in areas with a high incidence of disease to help stop the spread of the disease at its source.

'The fewer the mosquitoes, the lower the risk of disease. Our approach has proven to be more effective than the alternatives with a lower environmental impact.'

Oxitec, which was set up by Oxford University scientists in 2002, confirmed it was developing genetically modified 'sterile' mosquitoes in 2012 to tackle the spread of dengue fever and malaria.

The insects were released in Brazil, Malaysia, India and the Cayman Islands, aiming to wipe out as much as 80 per cent of the Aedes aegypti species, which are now the primary carrier of Zika.

The company said its technique would be less damaging to the environment than killing the bugs through radiation, and added the gene could not be passed on to other species.

Critics at the time claimed the process was rushed, including Dr Helen Wallace of watchdog Genewatch, who told The Guardian it was 'an experimental approach' which 'could do more harm than good'.

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It comes as the World Health Organisation is to hold an emergency meeting to discuss cures for Zika, which can infect pregnant women and affect a child's development.

Zika has been linked with microcephaly in babies, a potentially fatal condition where skulls and brains fail to form properly.

Pedro Mello, secretary of health in Piracicaba, also defended the company and said it's work had helped protect the local population from different viruses including Zika.

He said: 'The initial project in CECAP/Eldorado district clearly showed that the 'friendly Aedes aegyptisolution' made a big difference for the inhabitants of the area, helping to protect them from the mosquito that transmits dengue, Zika and chikungunya.

'It is important to remember that in dengue year 2014/15 CECAP/Eldorado had 133 cases of dengue, the highest incidence in the city of Piracicaba.

'In 2015/2016, after the beginning of the Friendly Aedes aegypti Project, we had only one case.

'With this result, in addition to extending the project for another year in CECAP/ Eldorado, we decided to expand the use of the friendly Aedes aegypti to the central area of Piracicaba.'

Many scientists have supported the British firm, including Alex Perkins, a Notre Dame biological sciences professor, who told Business Insider UK: 'It could very well be the case that genetically modified mosquitoes could end up being one of the most important tools that we have to combat Zika.

'If anything, we should potentially be looking into using these more.'

Zika is spreading northwards fast and a case in a four-year-old child was recently confirmed in Jamaica, the 24th country to report the virus.

Meanwhile, British hospitals are braced for cases of pregnant women exposed to the virus returning from abroad.

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