750 million genetically modified male mosquitoes to be released

Mosquitoes

Mosquitoes carry diseases, such as dengue and the Zika virus, that kill more than 700,000 people annually.

Florida Keys Mosquito Control District has approved the first US release of 750 million genetically engineered mosquitoes over a two-year period in Monroe County, Florida, scheduled for next year.

In May, the US Environmental Agency granted a trial permission to a UK-based, US-operated company Oxitec to produce the genetically engineered, male Aedes aegypti mosquitoes, which are known as OX5034.

The genetically engineered mosquitoes, once released, are intended to mate with wild Aedes aegypti mosquitoes and pass on a lethal gene to her offspring. The genetically engineered mosquito’s female offspring are engineered to die at the larval stage in the absence of the antibiotic tetracycline, which acts as a chemical switch to allow for successful reproduction in
the laboratory. After millions of genetically engineered males are released across a region, the intent is to reduce the wild Aedes aegypti mosquito female population.

The Aedes aegypti mosquito is invasive to southern Florida, and are commonly found in urban areas where they live in standing pools of water. In many areas, including the Florida Keys, they have developed a resistance to pesticides.

Florida Keys Mosquito Control District’s approval followed the US Environmental Protection Agency, US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and seven government agencies in Florida approving an Experimental Use Permit to Oxitec following an regulatory assessment that included more than 70 scientific and technical documents, 4,500 pages of material, and 25 commissioned scientific studies. All found that Oxitec’s technology poses no risk to humans, animals or the environment, including endangered species. The US Environmental Protection Agency also opened a public comment period. The responses can be found here.

The female Aedes aegypti mosquito is an invasive species found throughout the world and spreads dengue, Zika, chikungunya and yellow fever. It poses an increasing threat. This year there have been localised outbreaks of dengue in Florida Keys.

“Our team is incredibly thankful to the Florida Keys Mosquito Control District Commissioners, regulators and our diverse partners for placing trust in us. We’re ready to get to work, and we couldn’t think of better partners than the Florida Keys Mosquito Control District’s professional staff and collaborators in this project. We’re looking forward to working hand-in-hand with the Keys community to demonstrate the effectiveness of our safe, sustainable technology in light of the growing challenges controlling this disease-spreading mosquito,” said Oxitec CEO Grey Frandsen.

In a statement denouncing the project, environmental group Friends of the Earth said: “The release of genetically engineered mosquitoes will needlessly put Floridians, the environment and endangered species at risk in the midst of a pandemic.”

Kevin Gorman, an Oxitec scientist, told Associated Press that the company has successfully done similar projects in the Cayman Islands and Brazil.

“It’s gone extremely well,” Gorman said. “We have released over a billion of our mosquitoes over the years. There is no potential for risk to the environment or humans.”

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