When some people hear the word ‘mosquito,’ they cringe. If they hear the phrase ‘genetically modified mosquito,’ they would probably run for cover. It is not as frightening as it sounds, and mosquitoes could be released in the Florida Keys in an effort to keep the population of other mosquitoes down. This would be the first release of genetically modified or GM mosquitoes, but not the first for the release of other types of GM insects.
One of the species of mosquito to be targeted by the GM insects came to the U.S. from Egypt some time ago. This type, known as Aedes Aegypti, can carry dengue and chikungunya. While the project may affect other species of bloodsuckers, it is mainly targeted at the Aedes Aegypti, to potentially keep the population of these virus-ridden pests down.
The organization that is trying to solve Florida’s mosquito problem is a company named Oxitec; this company was has the slogan ‘innovative insect control’ and is a British bio-technical company. The plan to eradicate the Aedes Aegypti involves the release of only GM male mosquitoes, which would reproduce with the target species. As a result, the offspring of the pair die prematurely, according to Oxitec’s communications manager, Chris Creese.
Walter Tabachnick, Univeristy of Florida director of genetics and vector competence, says that the risk level for the release is low, however, he does not have the foresight to know for certain the mosquito’s effects. In addition, the project still needs approval from the FDA.
Creese said that the project was tested on the Cayman Islands, and after the release of the mosquitoes was completed, the adults were gone in two weeks. Oxitec also conducted a trial in a small town in Panama City, Panama, where they reported the decimation of 90 percent of the mosquito population.
The two viruses which occur in the target mosquitoes are Dengue and Chikungunya – both of which have no treatment. The idea behind the plan is that the solution is prevention by dramatically reducing the population of the mosquito so that far less people can be infected in the first place. Executive Director Michael Doyle of the Florida Keys Mosquito Control District rationalized the release of the mosquitoes by saying that the release itself is essentially a drug to cure disease.
The release is supposed to happen by summer, but not without a fight. On the petition site Change.org, a petition has been set up to stop Oxitec from releasing mosquitoes into the Florida Keys’ “fragile environment.” According to the site, more than 145,000 people have signed the petition. It is unknown how many of these people understand the purpose of the planned mosquito release. The petition against the GM mosquito has to get 150,000 signatures before it can move forward, and as of now there are more than 145,000 signatures.
If the release of the GM flying insects is successful at bringing the virus-laden population down, there are still effects as of yet undetermined. Oxitec’s lack of certainty when it comes to the effects of a possibly decreased population creates uncertainty in the public. One unknown is whether the decreased population will affect the predators of the mosquitoes, such as bats.
The district currently spends 10 percent of its budget on pest control, and this would save them a large portion of that. According to the Change.org, Oxitec is trying to get a patent which would allow them to use the GM mosquitoes whenever they feel the need.
Some people do not believe it necessary to release the GM mosquitoes because the intent is to prevent virus outbreaks, and Key West has not had a problem with either of the two viruses for a long time. Key Haven resident Marilyn Smith said to Fox News that the program is an attempt to fix something that is not a problem.
Despite opposition, most Key Haven residents responded in favor of the proposition. Oxitec has applied for a permit to release the genetically modified mosquitoes in May.
By Jacob Dowd
FOX 32 News
Photo by Liji Jinaraj – License