It sounds a little like the prologue to a disaster movie: a biotech company is planning to release 750 million mutant mosquitoes into the Florida Keys and it just got the green light from the government. But this isn’t Bites, the next summer B-movie. It’s a public health trial from Oxitec, a British company aiming to protect the public from malaria, dengue fever, and Zika.
The mosquitoes, a species called Aedes aegypti, have been genetically modified to pass on a protein marker that, in female offspring, should reduce their chances of survival, reducing the population significantly in ongoing generations. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency approved the plan in May, and on June 16, 2020, the Florida Department of Agriculture gave it the all-clear as well. Oxitec intends to begin this summer. The company is still seeking permissions for another trial next year in Houston, Texas.
All of the insects to be released are males, which don’t bite, so there won’t be a sudden massive surge in biting insects in the hot tourist zones of the Keys as they reopen to the public. The goal is for these new, less viable mosquitoes to outbreed the overpopulated incumbents, which are such a problem in Florida that there is a Mosquito Control Office.
Opposition to the plan is strong, with opponents calling it dangerous and poorly studied. Jaydee Hanson, policy director for the International Center for Technology Assessment and Center for Food Safety, called it a “Jurassic Park experiment.”
“What could possibly go wrong?” Hanson asks. “We don’t know, because they unlawfully refused to seriously analyze environmental risks.”
Brad Ray, executive director of the Florida Keys Environmental Coalition maintains that using Florida as a testing ground for such a massive project is a non-consensual use of the people of Florida for human testing.
Both groups, along with several others, are suing the EPA for approving the test without a proper impact assessment.
Photo: An Aedes aegypti mosquito that has just fed. Credit: Shutterstock