WHAT’S BEING CLAIMED:
- The Florida Keys Mosquito Control District approved a plan to release genetically modified male mosquitoes, on a quest to mate the female Aedes aegypti mosquitoes that would result in killing its offspring to break their population.
- The plan was commissioned to address the rising cases of Dengue fever and the Zika virus in Florida.
- Some experts expressed their hesitations on the project as it can negatively impact the ecological system.
An effort to mitigate the spread of insect-borne diseases is being commissioned and will be launched in Florida next year. Genetically modified mosquitoes will be released to prevent illnesses such as Dengue fever and the Zika virus.
This week, the Florida Keys Mosquito Control District approved the plan that will spearhead a 2021 project to counter the striped-legged Aedes aegypti mosquito, the insect that carries the diseases. So far, the Keys island chain recorded about 50 cases of Dengue this year.
The Oxitec biotechnology company plans to release millions of male, genetically-modified mosquitoes to mate with female mosquitoes that suck blood on humans. The male mosquitoes, which don’t bite, would contain a genetically-altered protein that would kill any potential offspring. It aims to decrease the mosquitoes’ population, thereby reducing its chance of transmitting the illness.
In a phone interview on Thursday, Oxitec scientist Kevin Gorman said that the company has successfully launched the same projects in Brazil and the Cayman Islands.
“It’s gone extremely well. We have released over a billion of our mosquitoes over the years. There is no potential for risk to the environment or humans,” he said.
Backing the safety of the project, the company cited previous studies by government agencies like the Environmental Protection Agency and the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
However, there were some concerns about the use of genetically-modified organisms (GMOs), suggesting it could yield repercussions on the world’s natural balance. Some people questioned the project during a meeting on Tuesday at the Florida Keys mosquito control board.
“You have no idea what that will do,” Florida Keys Environmental Coalition Director Barry Wray said.
Others were questioning if the modified mosquitoes could effectively curb the existence of mosquitoes in Florida.
“The mosquitoes created 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?” said Max Moreno, an expert in mosquito-borne diseases at Indiana University.
Another issue would be on latent environmental consequences, like the effect if another animal (e.g. frog or bird) would eat the modified mosquito.
“An ecosystem is so complicated and involves so many species, it would be almost impossible to test them all in advance in a lab,” Moreno argued. He was neither part of the pilot project nor the company.
Despite the reservations of some, the project will still proceed after board members voted 4-1 in favor of the project. Government agencies in Florida also gave their go signal.