In order to combat the spread of diseases such as dengue fever or Zika virus and other mosquitoes-causing ailments, state officials in Florida have endorsed the release of genetically-modified mosquitoes. These re-engineered mosquitoes will reduce the local populations of mosquitoes in targeted areas and consequently reduce the incidents of diseases such as dengue fever, yellow fever, chikungunya, and Zika.
The company behind the project is Oxitec, a biological company based in the UK but operated by the US. They have been empowered by the US Environmental Agency and the Florida Keys Mosquito Control Agency (FKMCD) to release the genetically-modified Aedes aegypti mosquitoes which cause the diseases. Only the male mosquitoes will be released since the males do not bite humans like the females which suck human blood to fertilize their eggs.
The target is for the engineered male mosquitoes to mate with the female counterparts in the wild so that the offspring to be born will be destroyed before they reach maturity to bite. The male ones to be released have been infused with a protein that will deter offsprings from reaching biting age, thereby reducing the population of mosquitoes in cities. The males will pass on the protein gene to females to render them either infertile or incapable of producing offsprings which suck blood.
The approval given to Oxitec is to gradually release the genetically-modified mosquitoes over a two-year period, but thousands of critics have risen to protest the planned effort. In fact, around 240,000 people signed a Change.org petition condemning the authorities for using the US as the test sites “for these mutant bugs”.
Some environmentalists call the project a “Jurassic Park experiment” and several warn that it might result in unintended consequences. Others said it might give rise to a hybrid breed of mosquitoes that are resistant to pesticides or that can destroy the natural ecosystems. Oxitec however ruled out any possible damage to natural habitats and insists several studies support the project which had been carried out successfully in Brazil.
“We have released over a billion of our mosquitoes over the years,” Oxitec explained. “There is no potential for risk to the environment or humans”.
The plan of officials is to release the new mosquitoes in Floriday Keys where the Aedes aegypti mosquito has become invasive and resistant to insecticides. Meanwhile, several cases of dengue have been reported in the Upper Keys with officials urging the public for cooperation in stamping out the disease.
“Residents and visitors need to remain vigilant and take the appropriate actions to prevent mosquitoes from biting,” said Andrea Leal, executive director for the Florida Keys Mosquito Control District. “While the Florida Keys Mosquito Control District acts to address the mosquito population, it is important to remember that the rainy season continues through the rest of the year. It takes a village to control the spread of this disease.”