Genetically modified mosquitoes with the ability to prevent other mosquitoes from spreading deadly diseases may be making their way to Florida backyards in the near future.
British biotech group Oxitec announced on Tuesday that the company had won both federal and state approval to release its so-called “Friendly” mosquitoes in the U.S. on an experimental trial basis, expected to last until 2022, according to documents provided by the Environmental Protection Agency. The insects will first be released in Monroe County, Florida, and Oxitec has plans to also bring them to Harris County, Texas.
Oxitec’s project involves Aedes aegypti, the mosquito that spreads yellow fever, dengue fever and Zika, among other diseases. While female Aedes aegypti feed on blood and are the transmitters of such illnesses, male Aedes aegypti are harmless, and Oxitec’s “Friendly” mosquitoes are males who have been altered to carry a specific “self-limiting gene,” according to a description on the company’s website. This gene will reduce the lifespan of any female offspring they might foster, but will live on in males, “offering ... self-limiting generations of suppression” that can lower the general Aedes aegypti population over time, theoretically leading to a decrease in the diseases that the insects are known for.
“There is broad consensus amongst public health officials in the U.S. that a new generation of safe, targeted and cost-effective vector control tools are needed urgently to combat the growing threat posed by Aedes aegypti without impacting the ecosystem,” Grey Frandsen, Oxitec CEO, said in the company’s announcement. “We’re pleased that the EPA and Florida state regulators have, after extensive scientific reviews, approved our demonstration trials and we look forward to continuing the collaboration with our local partners as they take up the matter.”
This novel method of mosquito population control was recently tested in the municipality of Indaiatuba, near São Paulo, Brazil, from May 2018 to 2019. In one of the tested communities, Oxitec observed that the genetically modified mosquitoes managed to suppress the population of Aedes aegypti up to 96% within a four-week period.
Oxitec’s work in mosquito genetics is not without controversy, and the company has targeted Florida as a testing ground for nearly a decade. A Change.org petition urging the EPA to reject the company’s proposals, originally posted online in 2012, has received over 230,000 signatures, and the EPA is facing pre-litigation from advocacy groups, including the Center for Food Safety and Friends of the Earth U.S., for approving Oxitec’s latest proposal.
Jaydee Hanson, policy director for the Center for Food Safety, called the mosquito project a “‘Jurassic Park’ experiment” in a statement. Hanson argued that by not carrying out in-depth consultations with local wildlife agencies before allowing Oxitec free rein with its insects, the EPA had “unlawfully refused to seriously analyze environmental risks.”
“The Florida Keys and Houston and the surrounding communities are home to some of the most diverse and threatened species in our country,” Dana Perls, food and technology program manager of Friends of the Earth U.S., echoed in the same statement. “Once again, the Trump administration is callously disregarding scientific experts and the will of communities to force this risky experiment through.”