Florida to launch Genetically-modified mosquitoes to fight insect borne diseases such as Dengue and Zika virus

Genetically modified mosquitoes will be released in the Florida Keys around next year in an effort to combat relentless insect borne diseases such as Dengue fever and the Zika virus.

The plan got approved by the Florida Keys Mosquito Control District this week and calls for a pilot project in 2021 including the striped-legged Aedes aegypti mosquito, which is not native to Florida. Though it does transmit several diseases to humans, mostly in the Keys island chain where aroud 50 cases of Dengue fever have been reported till date this year.

The Oxitec biotechnology company plan is to release millions of male, genetically-altered mosquitoes to mate with the females that bite humans as they need the blood. The male mosquitoes, which don’t bite, would contain a genetic change in a protein that would make any female offspring unable to survive thus reducing the population of the insects that transmit disease, in theory.

 An Oxitec scientist, Kevin Gorman said on Thursday in a phone interview from the United Kingdom that the company has successfully done such projects in the Cayman Islands and Brazil.

It’s gone extremely well,” said Gorman. “We have released over a billion of our mosquitoes over the years. There is no potential for risk to the environment or humans.

Oxitec points out several studies by government agencies, ranging from the Environmental Protection Agency to the US. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, that emphasize the safety of the project. Numerous Florida government agencies have approved it as well.

So far, there are people who worry about using genetically-modified organisms, that they believe could alter the planet’s natural balance. At a meeting of the Florida Keys mosquito control board on Tuesday, several people have questioned the wisdom of the project.

Director of the Florida Keys Environmental Coalition, Barry Wray told the board that You have no idea what that will do.

Whether or not the modified mosquitoes can efficiently crash the population of these mosquitoes in Florida remains an open question, say some experts.
The mosquitoes produced in a lab have not gone through a natural selection process, in which only the fittest survive and mate. 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? Stated  Max Moreno, an expert in mosquito-borne diseases at Indiana University, who is not involved in the company or the pilot project.

Other question is whether the mosquitoes may have other unintended effects on the environment. If a spider, frog or bird eats the mosquito, will the modified protein have any effect on the predator? An ecosystem is so complicated and involves so many species, it would be almost impossible to test all of them in advance in a lab, Moreno said.

After all, Keys mosquito board members voted 4-1 in favor of the project. One of the supporters, Jill Cranny-Gage, said at the meeting 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, said Cranny-Gage. We’re trying everything in our power, and we’re running out of options.


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