Up to 750 million genetically engineered mosquitoes will be let loose on the Florida Keys in a bid to quash mosquito-borne diseases like Dengue fever and the Zika virus.
The pilot project could come into effect as early as 2021 after being given the go-ahead by the Florida Keys Mosquito Control District (FKMCD) in August, as well as receiving approval from the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) earlier this year.
The plan is to release millions of male Aedes aegypti mosquitoes (which don’t bite) that have been genetically-tweaked to express a protein called tTa. Once the introduced males mate with wild female mosquitoes, the protein will be passed on and effectively kill their female offspring, thereby reducing the population of the mosquitos in the area.
The Aedes aegypti mosquito is not native to Florida, but it’s become a prominent vector for several human diseases, most notably Dengue fever, a nasty viral disease that's infected at least 47 people in the upper Florida Keys in 2020 so far. Zika virus, which infected over 200 people in Florida through mosquito-borne transmission in 2016, is also primarily transmitted by the bite of an infected Aedes aegypti mosquito.
It’s the first time such a project has been approved in the US. However, the plan has raised a fair amount of controversy, with some critics calling it a “Jurassic Park experiment.”
"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,” Jaydee Hanson, policy director for the International Center for Technology Assessment and the non-profit group Center for Food Safety, said in a statement.
“What could possibly go wrong? We don't know, because EPA unlawfully refused to seriously analyze environmental risks, now without further review of the risks, the experiment can proceed," they added.
With that said, there is currently little evidence to show the genetically-engineered mosquitoes will cause any problems for the ecosystem or human public.
Oxitec, the international biotech firm behind the project, says their project is backed up by an “exhaustive regulatory assessment” that included more than 70 technical documents and 25 scientific studies, all of which found the technology “poses no risk to humans, animals or the environment, including endangered species.”
A study published in the journal Scientific Reports last year looked at what happened when Oxitec’s mosquitoes were released in the Brazilian city of Jacobina between 2013 and 2015. The researchers concluded that the project didn’t work as intended, claiming that many of the mosquitoes were surviving into adulthood and potentially deepening the area's mosquito problem. However, this study was then met with criticism and received an Editorial Expression of Concern, which said some of the researcher’s claims were misleading.
The controversy is unlikely to end here, but supporters of the project maintain that the science is sound and the novel project could be one of the few options left to contain the mosquito-borne diseases in the area.
“The science is there. This is something Monroe County needs,” Jill Cranny-Gage, a supporter of the project, said at the Mosquito Control District’s meeting, according to Associated Press. “We’re trying everything in our power, and we’re running out of options.”