Florida Approves Controversial Plan to Release 750 Million Genetically Modified Mosquitoes
Authorities in Florida have approved a pilot project that will release 750 million genetically modified mosquitoes locally, in a bid to reduce the populations of mosquitoes that cause that cause dengue, Zika, chikungunya, and yellow fever, BBC reported.
Slated to be released in 2021, the genetically modified mosquitoes have been developed by Oxitec, a US-owned, British-based company. The female Aedes aegypti mosquitoes are responsible for the transmission of infectious diseases. The strategy is to release genetically modified male mosquitoes into the environment, who will carry a protein inhibiting the survival of their female offsprings when they mate. “The male offspring will survive to become fully functional adults with the same genetic modification, providing multi-generational effectiveness that could ultimately lead to a reduction in Aedes aegypti mosquito populations in the release areas. EPA anticipates that this could be an effective tool to combat the spread of certain mosquito-borne diseases,” Oxitec said.
Announcing the approval by the Florida Keys Mosquito Control District (FKMCD), Oxitec added that the project will be overseen by the FKMCD, the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), and the department of agriculture in Florida. Further, the CDC is slated to evaluate the project independently, alongside local health departments, and leaders, “forming a broad and diverse coalition to support this effort.” While Oxitec has previously released genetically modified mosquitoes in Brazil and the Cayman Islands, this will be U.S.’s first attempt at using these mosquitoes.
However, activists have strongly opposed the move, calling this a “Jurassic Park experiment“; they are worried that it will potentially create hybrid, insecticide-resistant mosquitoes, and they are accusing the EPA of failure to “seriously analyze environmental risks.” The public backlash has lead to a petition on Change.org, which states: “We do not consent to being a human experiment and we do not want [genetically modified] mosquitoes.” The petition has more than 234,500 signatures.
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Moreover, scientists are also worried about any unintended implications on the ecosystem. It remains unclear if a spider, frog, or bird eats the mosquito, whether the modified genes of the mosquito will affect the predator in any way. Max Moreno, an expert in mosquito-borne diseases at Indiana University, who is neither involved with Oxitec nor with the pilot project, told the Associated Press (AP): “An ecosystem is so complicated and involves so many species, it would be almost impossible to test them all in advance in a lab.”
Oxitec claims to have commissioned 25 scientific studies before getting the approval of the EPA, CDC, and the others. It also claims that an experiment in Brazil reduced the A. aegypti mosquitoes in the urban, dengue-prone environment, where the the genetically modified mosquitoes were released, by 95 percent following 13 weeks of treatment.
The local authorities in Florida remain hopeful that it will work. “The science is there. This is something Monroe County needs. We’re trying everything in our power, and we’re running out of options,” Jill Cranny-Gage, a long-time supporter of genetically modified mosquitoes, and member of the mosquito control board, told AP. Reportedly, FKMCD says that using genetically modified mosquitoes to tackle the problem may be less expensive and more effective than other measures, and approved the plan by a 4-1 majority. The genetically modified mosquitoes will be released into Florida Keys, a string of tropical islands located off the southern coast of Florida, over the course of a two-year period in 2021 and 2022. Oxitec also plans to release the genetically modified mosquitoes in Texas, pending approval from state and local authorities there.
Even so, the tussle remains. While Oxitec has assured, “…there is no potential for risk to the environment or humans,” environmentalists are still worried: “The release of genetically engineered mosquitoes will needlessly put Floridians, the environment and endangered species at risk in the midst of a pandemic.”
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