Home Environment & Climate News Florida Regulators Approve Genetically Modified Mosquitoes to Fight Tropical Diseases

Florida Regulators Approve Genetically Modified Mosquitoes to Fight Tropical Diseases

Recently, the federal government and state regulators in Florida approved the release of a strain of genetically modified mosquitos into a small area of the Florida Keys in an effort to fight mosquito-borne tropical diseases such as chikungunya, dengue fevers, malaria, and yellow fever.

Under the plan, the biotech company Oxitec would be allowed to release hundreds of millions of genetically modified male mosquitoes of the Aedes aegypti subspecies into the Florida Keys.

Oxitec’s mosquitos have been modified so when they mate with females, the offspring they produce are incapable of surviving to adulthood. Laboratory tests and field tests have indicated widespread introduction of this mosquito could dramatically reduce the population of the disease-spreading mosquitoes and thus the spread of tropical diseases.

Possible Boon for Humanity

The World Health Organization (WHO) reports mosquitoes are among the deadliest animals on earth. The WHO attributes 438,000 deaths to the insects from malaria alone in 2015. Other mosquito-spread diseases claim thousands more lives each year.

If Oxitec’s trademarked “Oxitec’s Friendly” mosquitos prove successful in reducing overall mosquito populations across multiple generations, it could save millions of lives around the world over time.

In recent years, with the approval of their respective governments, Oxitec has released its genetically modified mosquitoes at sites in Brazil, the Cayman Islands, Malaysia, and Panama. Brazil reported mosquito populations fell by at least 90 percent in the locations Oxitec’s Friendly mosquitos were released in the year following their introduction.

‘New Generation … of Control Tools’

After a careful review of the potential environmental and human health impacts of introducing Oxitec’s Friendly mosquitos into the environment, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) granted Oxitec permission in May to undertake a pilot project with mosquitoes until 2022. By a vote of four to one, the board of the Florida Keys Mosquito Control District (FKMCD) has approved an experimental release of the genetically modified mosquitos as well. Oxitec expects to release the mosquitos in 2021.

The federal and state approvals are justified because Oxitec’s Friendly mosquitoes will prevent the spread of deadly diseases while causing no environmental harm, said Oxitec in a press release.

“Oxitec’s Friendly mosquitoes pose no risks to human health or the environment, including fish and other aquatic life, birds, bats, plants, invertebrates, or endangered species,” said the company in its news release.

“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’s CEO said in the company’s press release.

‘The Science Is There’

The FKMCD currently spends as much as $1 million annually combatting disease-carrying mosquitos, through actions such as expensive aerial spraying of insecticides. In approving Oxitec’s release of its genetically modified mosquitos, the board indicated it hoped the procedure would be less expensive, more effective, and better for the environment than the mosquito control options it currently uses.

Florida needs more effective mosquito control technologies, Jill Cranny-Gage, a member of FKMCD’s board, told the Associated Press (AP).

“The science is there,” said Cranny-Gage. “This is something Monroe County needs.

“We’re trying everything in our power, and we’re running out of options,” Cranny-Gage said, according to the AP.

H. Sterling Burnett, Ph.D. (hsburnett@heartland.org) is the managing editor of Environment & Climate News.

H. Sterling Burnett
H. Sterling Burnett, Ph.D. is a Heartland senior fellow on environmental policy and the managing editor of Environment & Climate News.

3 COMMENTS

  1. According to scientists there is a risk the so called gene drive could even spread from mosquitoes to butterflies, killing pollinators en masse, risking crops, plants and entire ecosystems. [2]

    Nobody pushing the new technology has a solution to mitigate those risks, but even so there are plans in action to make this a reality. Most of the funding to make this happen is being provided by the US military and the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation.

    More than 200 organisations worldwide are calling for a global moratorium on the release of gene drive organisms to protect biodiversity. [3] The moratorium should remain in place until globally binding rules are found for the following risks and open questions:

    Non-retrievable and uncontrollable spread: According to the current state of knowledge, once released, gene drive organisms cannot be retrieved. Nor can their spread in time and space be limited. National borders in particular, but also geographical boundaries, are meaningless to gene drive organisms.

    Risky research: To our knowledge, gene drives have only been tested in the laboratory, but even that is risky. It is enough if only a few organisms escape to start a genetic chain reaction.

    Genetic engineering tools are prone to error: The genetic engineering tools such as CRISPR/Cas9, which are active in the released organisms, are prone to error. Unforeseen effects at the genetic level are therefore likely.

    It is at least complicated, but often impossible, to foresee all ecological effects: Gene drives are designed to have an effect in natural populations over generations and to be inherited dominantly. It cannot be predicted how food chains will change and how the behaviour of other animal species will change when an animal species disappears. There are as yet no guidelines for risk assessment, if this should be possible at all. The risks to humans and the environment are largely unexplored.Beyond a risk assessment, a comprehensive technology assessment is necessary before gene drive organisms are released into the environment: Since the technology has far-reaching consequences and raises technical, ecological, ethical, cultural, social and regulatory questions, a technology assessment is necessary before any application in nature. Liability and compensation regulations are also not sufficiently clarified worldwide.

    Gene drives can also be used for military purposes: The US military research institute DARPA is one of the main sponsors of Gene Drive research. [4] The UN Bioweapons Convention has been discussing for several years how the potential danger posed by gene drives as biological weapons can be limited.

    Who decides? If gene drive organisms can and should spread worldwide, it must be clarified who is allowed to decide whether to release them. A body and decision-making mechanism on a global level is needed in which this can happen.

    https://act.wemove.eu/campaigns/gene-drive-moratorium-uk?action=sign&utm_source=civimail-31162&utm_medium=email&utm_campaign=20200629_EN

  2. […] Federal government and state regulators in Florida recently approved the introduction of Oxitec’s mosquitos into a small area of the Sunshine State. This follows the actions of the governments of Brazil, the Cayman Islands, Malaysia, and Panama, which have allowed Oxitec to release its bioengineered mosquitos at selected sites. Brazil reported mosquito populations fell by at least 90 percent in the locations Oxitec’s mosquitos were released in the year following their introduction. […]

  3. […] Federal government and state regulators in Florida recently approved the introduction of Oxitec’s mosquitos into a small area of the Sunshine State. This follows the actions of the governments of Brazil, the Cayman Islands, Malaysia, and Panama, which have allowed Oxitec to release its bioengineered mosquitos at selected sites. Brazil reported mosquito populations fell by at least 90 percent in the locations Oxitec’s mosquitos were released in the year following their introduction. […]

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