On August 18, the Florida Keys Mosquito Control District approved the release of 750 million genetically engineered mosquitoes throughout 2021 and 2022. The release is part of a pilot project designed to help the district cut down on insecticides while still controlling its Aedes aegypti population—a species of mosquito that spreads diseases, such as dengue, Zika, yellow fever, and chikungunya.
Oxitec, based in Britain but American-owned, is responsible for creating the genetically engineered mosquitoes. According to its website, the company’s goal is to create safe, sustainable technologies designed to combat insects that transmit diseases and destroy crops. Its list of genetically engineered insects includes two other types of mosquitoes as well as moths and a caterpillar.
On May 1, The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency granted Oxitec an Experimental Use Permit to pilot its Aedes aegypti mosquito in the U.S.
“Our aim is to empower governments and communities of all sizes to effectively and sustainably control these disease-spreading mosquitoes without harmful impact on the environment and without complex, costly operations,” wrote Grey Frandson, Oxitec’s CEO, in a May 1 statement. “The potential for our technology to do so is unmatched, and this EPA approval will allow us to take the first steps towards making it available in the U.S.”
Oxitec’s mosquitoes contain a self-limiting gene. The gene is passed onto the insect’s offspring, causing them to die before they reach adulthood, reducing the mosquito population. Oxitec says it only releases genetically engineered male mosquitoes as the females suck blood to nourish their eggs, spreading diseases in the process. Male mosquitoes rely on nectar for sustenance.
Oxitec says the job of the genetically engineered male mosquitoes is to find wild females and mate with them. The males then survive for multiple generations, passing the self-limiting gene onto male offspring.
Despite the EPA approval, however, not everyone is on board with releasing millions of mosquitoes into the Florida Keys. “With all the urgent crises facing our nation and the State of Florida—COVID-19 pandemic, racial injustice, and climate change—the administration has used tax dollars and government resources for a Jurassic Park experiment,” said Jaydee Hanson, policy director for the International Center for Technology Assessment and Center for Food Safety in a statement released August 19.
“Now, the Monroe County Mosquito Control District has given the final permission needed. 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.”
The genetically engineered males have been tested in Brazil where a scientific study, published in 2015, reported that the Aedes aegypti species was reduced by 95 per cent. A second study, however, published in 2019, reported that in rare instances the genetically engineered male and wild female would give birth to a hybrid offspring robust enough to reproduce in nature. The study says it is currently unclear how the hybrid mosquito might affect disease transmission.
Among other concerns with the pilot project, environmental groups say they’re worried about the effects genetically engineered insects might have on endangered species of birds, insects, and mammals that feed on mosquitoes.
“The release of genetically engineered mosquitoes will needlessly put Floridians, the environment, and endangered species at risk in the midst of a pandemic,” said Dana Perls, the food and technology program manager at Friends of the Earth, in the August 19 statement.
No official date has been given for when Oxitec’s mosquitoes will be released in the Florida Keys, but the FKMCD said in a press release that it will not occur until 2021.
Update: In April 2021 researchers set out Oxitec mosquito eggs in boxes in three locations in Florida, and males began emerging in early May.