August 21, 2020
Earlier next year, genetically modified mosquitoes will be at large in the Florida Keys in the US to combat obstinate insect-borne diseases such as Dengue fever and the Zika virus.
The plan was approved this week by the Florida Keys Mosquito Control District and calls for a pilot project in 2021, including the striped-legged Aedes aegypti mosquito, which is not innate to Florida.
But it can spread several diseases to humans, mainly in the Keys island chain, where approximately 50 cases of Dengue fever have been stated so far this year.
The Oxitec biotechnology company plans to release millions of male, genetically-altered mosquitoes to mate with the females that bite humans since they need the blood.
The male mosquitoes that don’t bite would contain a genetic alteration in a protein that would reduce any female descendants unable to survive — thus decreasing the population of the insects that spread disease, in theory.
Kevin Gorman, an Oxitec scientist, said last Thursday that the company has effectively done such projects in the Cayman Islands and Brazil.
“It’s gone extremely well,” Mr. Gorman said.
Oxitec notes several studies by government agencies, going from the Environmental Protection Agency to the US Centres for Disease Control and Prevention, which underscores the project’s safety.
Several Florida government agencies have accepted it as well. However, some people are concerned about using genetically-modified organisms, or GMOs, that they consider could alter the planet’s natural balance.
Questions speculate around the ability of the genetically modified mosquitoes to compete and survive against mosquitos already existing naturally.
At a recent meeting of the Florida Keys mosquito control board, several people questioned the project’s astuteness.
“You have no idea what that will do,” Barry Wray, director of the Florida Keys Environmental Coalition, told the board.
Some experts say whether or not the modified mosquitoes can powerfully crash the populace of these mosquitoes in Florida remains an open question.
“Once they are released in the natural environment, will they be as fit as the naturally occurring males and able to outcompete them for mates?” an expert in mosquito-borne diseases at Indiana University, Max Moreno, is not involved in the company or the pilot project.
One more question is whether the mosquitoes may have other unintentional effects on the environment. If a spider, frog, or bird eats the mosquito, will the modified protein have any outcome on the predator?
“An ecosystem is so complicated and involves so many species, it would be almost impossible to test them all in advance in a lab,” said Mr. Moreno.
Still, Keys mosquito board members voted four to one in favor of the venture.
One of the supporters, Jill Cranny-Gage, said that insecticides and other chemical means have become less effective against the Aedes aegypti mosquito.
“The science is there. This is something Monroe County needs,” Ms. Cranny-Gage said.