To fight dengue fever, Florida officials are considering releasing genetically modified male mosquitos who carry a lethal gene which kills their own offspring. 22 people on Florida’s Treasure Coast contracted dengue fever this past summer; also known as break bone fever, it causes debilitating joint pain and severe flu-like symptoms.
The blood-feeding Aedes aegypti mosquito carries the dengue virus. So far, Florida authorities have tried to fight the spread of the mosquitos with aerial spraying, fumigation, parasitic nematodes, dragonflies and a 2-pound drone to spot its breeding grounds. As Gene Lemire, director of Martin County Mosquito Control, notes in Al-Jazeera, “it’s very difficult to spray everywhere where this mosquito hides and breeds.” Plus, the mosquito thrives in metropolitan areas as well as wetlands.
Wall Street-Backed Company Creates GM Mosquitos, Releases Them Quietly
Only the female Aedes aegypti mosquito can pass the dengue virus to humans via its bite. Oxitec Ltd., an Abingdon, U.K.-based bioengineering company with backing from Wall Street created the GM mosquitos. It can still trace GM mosquitos even after they’re released in the wild as the altered gene they carry has a fluorescent marker that is readily visible, even to the naked eye. Without male insects to breed with, the female ones die off, as do their offspring who carry the lethal gene, according to Derric Nimmo, director of Oxitec Public Health Research.
Oxitec performed those tests without informing or consulting with the public and without any independent oversight. Environmental activists have consistently raised concerns about the company’s operations and, certainly, about the release of genetically engineered organisms without any clear sense of their long-term effect on ecosystems.
Despite the uproar, Oxitec is now building a “mosquito plant” in the Brazilian state of Bahia, where it plans to release 4 billion GM mosquitos as a part of a project in collaboration with the government. While acknowledging people’s wariness about working with a for-profit company like Oxitec, biologist Margareth Capurro of Sao Paulo University claims that she will be able to “evaluate the product independently.” In the first trials in two test districts, Capurro says that the mosquito population fell by 90 percent.
Oxitec is also planning to release its GM mosquitos in Malaysia.
Florida Residents Object to Release of Oxitec’s Mosquitos Until Further Study
Florida officials like Michael Doyle, the director of the Florida Keys Mosquito Control District (FKMCD), are considering using Oxitec’s GM mosquitos, in the hope of preventing the Aedes aegypti mosquito from spreading to the 44 inhabited islands of the 1,200 in the Florida Straits. Doyla contends that residents are not doing enough to fight the spread of the mosquito by taking care that rain water does not collect on their property or using mosquito repellent.
Not surprisingly, residents are not welcoming the prospects of millions of genetically engineered insects, even if they might halt the spread of a disease like dengue fever, being released around them. The Key West City Commission actually passed a resolution last year to halt their release until further study can be done.
Nonetheless, the FKMCD is still hoping to release some GM mosquitos at a test site, pending Food and Drug Administration (FDA) approval. The FKMCD has changed the test site, to Key Haven and Stock Island, two areas outside Key West with large populations of Aedes aegypti mosquitos. Mila de Mier, a Key West real estate agent who has campaigned against the release of the mosquitos, points out Stock Island is a less affluent and “large immigrant community, with trailer homes and not a lot of English speakers”; she argues that it will be less likely to put up a protest if the FKMCD wins approval to release Oxitec’s mosquitos.
Anthony James, a distinguished professor at the University of California, Irvine, who has studied the international regulatory process of GM mosquitoes and advises the FDA, actually says that the science behind the GM mosquitos is “really good.” But he also points out that “what works in Brazil won’t be the same in Florida” especially given levels of “community engagement is very specific to each region.” Showing full awareness of public sentiment about genetically engineered organisms, James notes that “nobody wants to take primary responsibility for regulating this.”
Dengue fever and other diseases carried by mosquitos like West Nile virus are serious public health concerns. The last thing we want to do in fighting these is to create yet unimagined problems for our health and for the ecosystems in which insects created in a lab have been introduced.
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