A plan to release over 750 million genetically modified mosquitoes in the Florida Keys has received final approval.
According to CNN, on Tuesday, local authorities approved a plan to release the genetically modified mosquitoes in the Sunshine State’s string of islands, with the hope of preventing a string of diseases that the insects can carry.
Approved by the Environment Protection Agency in May, the project is “designed to test if a genetically modified mosquito is a viable alternative to spraying insecticides to control the Aedes aegypti,” a type of mosquito that shows resistance to pesticides and is said to spread dengue, Zika, yellow fever, and other diseases.
The Monroe County Mosquito Control District signed off on the proposal that had already won state and federal approval. It will be the first time genetically modified mosquitoes will be released in the U.S. and it is set to take place in 2021 and 2022.
The genetically modified male mosquito, named OX5034, was altered with a special gene so that its female offspring die in the larval stage, long before they can go on to bite and spread disease. Only the female mosquito bites for blood, while the males feed only on nectar, and are therefore not a carrier for any disease.
It took over a decade to approve the project, which came about after local outbreaks of dengue fever affected the Florida area in 2009 and 2010. The outbreaks left the Florida Keys Mosquito Control District desperate for new options after aerial, truck and backpack spraying, as well as the use of mosquito-eating fish, was not as effective as hoped.
Even though the specific breed of mosquito counts for only 1% of the insect’s population, Florida Keys Mosquito Control typically budgets more than $1 million a year — a full tenth of its total funding — to fighting it, the outlet reports.
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So the district then reached out to British company Oxitec in 2012, which had previously developed a male mosquito that was programmed to die before adulthood unless it was grown in water that contained the antibiotic tetracycline.
The genetically engineered mosquitoes were already released by Oxitec for trials in Brazil and studies by the company found that the program resulted in significant population declines for the Aedes aegypti and was a cost-effective alternative to potentially harmful pesticides.
The trial reduced the Aedes aegypti by 95%, due to the fact that when the new males grow up, they mate with more females, which would decline the number of disease-carrying insects.
However, the project is up against the objection of many local residents and an array of environmental advocacy groups, who criticized the potential impact the mosquitoes could have on humans and animals.
“The release of genetically engineered mosquitoes will needlessly put Floridians, the environment, and endangered species at risk in the midst of a pandemic,” Dana Perls, food and technology program manager at Friends of the Earth, said in a statement. “This approval is about maximizing Oxitec’s profits, not about the pressing need to address mosquito-borne diseases.”
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Jaydee Hanson, policy director for the International Center for Technology Assessment and Center for Food Safety, echoed Perls’ statement and shared, “With all the urgent crises facing our nation and the State of Florida — the COVID-19 pandemic, racial injustice, climate change — the administration has used tax dollars and government resources for a Jurassic Park experiment.”
“Now the Monroe County Mosquito Control District has given the final permission needed. What could possibly go wrong? We don’t know, because the EPA unlawfully refused to seriously analyze environmental risks, now without further review of the risks, the experiment can proceed,” she added.
The modified mosquitos were also approved for release in Harris County, Texas, beginning in 2021, according to Oxitec.
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