British researchers are trying to win approval from the Food and Drug Administration to release millions of genetically modified mosquitoes in the Florida Keys. The mosquitoes would be used to fight two “extremely painful viral diseases.”
“This is essentially using a mosquito as a drug to cure disease,” said Michael Doyle, executive director of the Florida Keys Mosquito Control District, which is waiting to hear if the Food and Drug Administration will allow the experiment.
Dengue and chikungunya are growing threats in the United States but people are terrified of being bitten by a Frankenstein-esque mosquito. More than 130,000 people signed a petition against the experimental insects.
Supporters of the project also think there needs to be a better job of showing the benefits outweigh the risks of the project.
“I think the science is fine, they definitely can kill mosquitoes, but the GMO issue still sticks as something of a thorny issue for the general public,” said Phil Lounibos, who studies mosquito control at the Florida Medical Entomology Laboratory.
Insecticides are sprayed around the Keys year-round to keep the disease at bay. But Aedes aegypti, the female insect responsible for carrying the disease, have evolved to be resistant to the pesticides.
A British biotech firm patented a method for breeding the insect that kills mosquito larvae.
Oxitec’s lab workers manually remove modified females, aiming to release only males, which don’t bite for blood like females do. The modified males then mate with wild females whose offspring die, reducing the population.
Oxitec has built a breeding lab in Marathon and hopes to release its mosquitoes in a Key West neighborhood this spring.
The FDA says there will be no test until the agency “thoroughly reviewed all the necessary information.”
The mosquitoes have already been tested in the Cayman Islands. “3.3 million modified mosquitoes were released over six months, suppressing 96 percent of the targeted bugs. Oxitec says a later test in Brazil also was successful, and both countries now want larger-scale projects.”
But critics say Oxitec did not get informed consent in the Caymans and residents weren’t informed they could be bitten by some stray females “overlooked” in the lab.
“I’m on their side, in that consequences are highly unlikely. But to say that there’s no genetically modified DNA that might get into a human, that’s kind of a gray matter,” said Lounibos.
One Key West resident isn’t buying Oxitec’s story when they made a presentation at a public meeting. She says neither disease has had a major outbreak yet in Florida, so “why are we being used as the experiment, the guinea pigs, just to see what happens?”