The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) says genetically modified mosquitoes are no danger to the environment or humans. The federal agency of the United States Department of Health and Human Services is considering a field trial of releasing genetically modified mosquitoes in the Florida Keys.
On Friday, the FDA released documents for public comment pertaining to their review of information regarding genetically modified mosquitoes provided from Oxitec, Ltd. — a British biotech firm.
Genetically Modified Mosquitoes
Aedes aegypti mosquitoes are a non-native species in the United States. Besides being a nuisance, this mosquito strain can spread serious diseases — like chikungunya and dengue fever.
In order to produce mosquito offspring that will not survive outside a laboratory, Oxitec modifies Aedes aegypti mosquitoes with synthetic DNA. The biotech company has already conducted similar tests in the Cayman Islands, Brazil, and Panama. The Telegraph reports that releasing genetically modified mosquitoes in Brazil “has seen populations of infectious insects fall by 90 per cent.”
Currently the Florida Keys — including Key West — are not experiencing outbreaks of chikungunya and dengue fever. However, the Florida Keys Mosquito Control District (FKMCD) has been working with Oxitec in an attempt to reduce the Aedes aegypti pest. They are searching for ways to keep mosquito populations down to an acceptable level. The FDA, the World Health Organization (WHO), and FKMCD believe that the Oxitec technology is an innovative tool in the fight against mosquitoes.
According to a report by The Washington Post regarding the FDA’s decision, “The agency’s Center for Veterinary Medicine released a preliminary finding that no significant impact would result from the trial of a method that aims to reduce populations of the mosquito that spreads dengue, chikungunya and the Zika virus among humans.”
As part of the World Health Organization’s efforts to join the fight against Aedes aegypti mosquitoes, the organization has been considering research into a gene drive. If successful, a gene drive could ultimately overtake populations of mosquitoes with genetically modified mosquitoes that would be incapable of spreading the Zika virus.
In their Strategic Response Framework & Joint Operation Plan the WHO noted, “There are a range of vector control measures for the mosquitoes known to spread the Zika virus. Recent developments, such as progress in mosquitoes modified to carry Release of Insects with Dominant Lethality (RIDL) traits or the use of gene drives, [offer] opportunities for novel approaches.”
Opposing GM Mosquitoes
Oxitec faces some strong opposition to the company’s genetically modified mosquitoes. The Washington Post cites, “Oxitec’s goal is to sell its mosquitoes and services in the way that other companies sell insecticides.”
The Florida Keys Environmental Coalition, a residents’ group against the spread of genetically modified mosquitoes, wants the district to try infecting mosquitoes with a bacteria that curbs their ability to transmit disease, instead of spreading genetically modified misquotes over the area. The group argues that Oxitec’s proposal is mostly marketing propaganda and won’t be subject to enough federal oversight.
On Monday, the coalition’s executive director, Barry Wray, sent an email to the Associated Press. Wray questioned the ongoing costs of Oxitec’s method. Wray wrote, “Oxitec has exploited the fear surrounding Zika very effectively. When you start looking at the quantity of mosquitoes they need to continuously provide, in order to keep problems under control, the numbers are astounding. So is the money required!”
Oxitec’s trials of genetically modified mosquitoes have been widely criticized. Critics say additional proof is required with regards to stray female GM mosquitoes. Do these genetically modified mosquitoes spread genetic material through bites? In addition, could there be other environmental risks — such as another disease-carrying mosquito species infestation?
A brief description of the Florida Keys Project is explained on Oxitec’s website. Oxitec and FKMCD are working on informing the Florida Keys community about the mosquito releases and to answer any questions the public may have.
The Food and Drug Administration Center for Veterinary Medicine (FDA-CVM) is working with other agencies for federal regulation of this project. The other agencies include the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).
If the FDA agrees that releases can proceed following their current review, Oxitec male mosquitoes would be released up to three times a week. The results of the project will be made available to the public.
There will be no releases until the FDA has completed an evaluation. The FDA will issue public notification when it publishes the draft Environmental Assessment for comment. To provide a comment electronically, go to the FDA docket, and then type FDA-2014-N-2235 in the search box. Comments should be submitted by the closing date — 30 days from the date of publication.