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The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation awarded two grants to Oxitec, a biotechnology firm, to research genetically modifying the Asian blue tick, a common pest affecting cattle in some parts of the world.
Oxitec said its modified ticks have not been introduced in the wild. Research has taken place only in United Kingdom labs so far.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said there’s been a rise since 2010 in alpha-gal syndrome, an allergy that’s connected to tick bites. But the CDC said that, in the U.S., the Lone Star tick is largely responsible for spreading the allergy — not the Asian blue tick.
Is Bill Gates responsible for a rise in meat allergies stemming from tick bites?
"In 2021, Bill Gates funded research into genetically engineered cattle ticks — Now 450,000 Americans have red-meat allergies from ‘Alpha-Gal Syndrome’ caused by tick bites, making it one of the most common food allergies in the United States," an Aug. 30 Instagram post read.
The post’s caption referenced Gates’ investments in farmland, mosquito and tick research, lab-grown meat and plant-based meat alternatives to suggest that an increase in red-meat allergies is connected to the billionaire Microsoft Corp. co-founder and philanthropist.
Experts told us the impossible premise of this new claim makes it false:The genetically modified ticks have so far been researched only in laboratories.
Also, the type of ticks responsible for the rise in the U.S. in alpha-gal syndrome are not the same as the ones being genetically modified.
The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation in 2021 provided a grant to Oxitec, a biotechnology company focused on pest control, to research ways to limit the population of the Asian blue tick, which commonly affects cattle and other livestock. In April, the foundation granted Oxitec another $4.85 million.
Oxitec, after using the first grant to conduct feasibility research, announced in May the launch of a "solution for the invasive Asian blue tick, Rhipicephalus microplus." The tick, it said, spreads deadly cattle diseases, costs farmers billions of dollars and is resistant to pesticides.
Its solution is to create a modified male Asian blue tick with a self-limiting gene, which will mate with females and pass the gene to their offspring, preventing them from surviving to adulthood and reproducing.
Alpha-gal syndrome is an allergic reaction to alpha-gal, a sugar molecule found in most mammals, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said. It’s also known as alpha-gal allergy, red meat allergy or tick bite meat allergy.
Symptoms include hives, nausea and shortness of breath two to six hours after eating meat or dairy products.
The study said the number of cases has increased substantially since 2010, and "states with established populations of Lone Star ticks are most affected."
"In the U.S., most cases of alpha-gal syndrome are caused by bites from the Lone Star tick, Amblyomma americanum," said Jon Oliver, a University of Minnesota assistant environmental health sciences professor.
Outside the U.S., other tick species are more likely to be associated with the syndrome, so it’s possible other tick species in the U.S. can cause the allergy.
"Many species of ticks throughout the world appear to be capable of expressing the alpha-gal sugar in their saliva," said Dr. Scott Commins, an associate professor at the University of North Carolina School of Medicine who researches alpha-gal syndrome.
Although ticks other than the Lone Star species can cause alpha-gal syndrome, it’s impossible that Oxitec’s modified Asian blue ticks have caused any cases. The company has not released any ticks into the wild.
"There have been no trials thus far in the field," said Neil Morrison, Oxitec chief strategy officer. "All of Oxitec’s early (research and development) has been conducted in labs in the UK on R. microplus."
"There is no conceivable relationship. It's scientifically impossible," Morrison said.
Commins agreed. The gene used in the genetic modification research involves over-producing a protein in the ticks, while alpha-gal is a sugar, he said, "so that scientifically is not possible to be the cause of rising ASG cases."
In addition, the Asian blue tick largely has been eradicated from the U.S., experts said. The U.S. Department of Agriculture has a program to monitor a large area in South Texas to make sure the ticks don’t regain a foothold here, as they sometimes crop up because of wildlife coming from Mexico.
An Instagram post claimed that a 2021 Gates-funded research program that genetically engineers ticks is responsible for a rise in alpha-gal syndrome. Cases of the syndrome have been rising since 2010, well before the research began.
But the CDC said the Lone Star tick — not the Asian blue tick used in Oxitec research — is largely responsible for most U.S. cases of alpha-gal syndrome. What’s more, the ticks in the Oxitec program have not been released outside of labs. That species of tick has been largely eradicated from the U.S.
We rate the claim False.
Oxitec, Friendly™ Cattle Tick (Rhipicephalus (Boophilus) microplus), accessed Aug. 31, 2023
Oxitec, About our technology, accessed Aug. 31, 2023
Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, Oxitec grant, March 2021
Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, Oxitec grant, April 2023
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Alpha-gal syndrome, accessed Aug. 31, 2023
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Geographic Distribution of Suspected Alpha-gal Syndrome Cases — United States, January 2017–December 2022, July 28, 2023
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Health Care Provider Knowledge Regarding Alpha-gal Syndrome — United States, March–May 2022, July 28, 2023
Mayo Clinic, Alpha-gal syndrome, accessed Aug. 31, 2023
The Center for Food Security and Public Health, Rhipicephalus (Boophilus) microplus and R. australis, June 2022
Neil Morrison, chief strategy officer at Oxitec, email interview, Aug. 31, 2023
Jon Oliver, assistant environmental health sciences professor at the University of Minnesota, email interview, Aug. 31, 2023
Dr. Scott Commins, an associate professor at the University of North Carolina School of Medicine, email interview, Aug. 31, 2023
U.S. Department of Agriculture, Tick Riders: The Cornerstone of USDA's Cattle Fever Tick Program, April 13, 2011
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