By Sara Muharremi
750 million genetically engineered mosquitoes have been approved by the Environment Protection Agency (EPA) and The Florida Keys Mosquito Control District to be released in the Florida Keys, and it could begin as soon as 2021.
A UK-based biotech company called Oxitec is working to genetically alter the Aedes aegypti mosquito which is responsible for carrying and spreading many deadly diseases to humans such as dengue, Zika, chikungunya, and yellow fever. The goal is to reduce the rates at which these diseases appear and spread. It is important to note that when it comes to mosquitoes, only the females bite so that they may use the blood to produce eggs; whereas male mosquitoes feed on nectar in flowers.
Back in 2012, Oxitec had originally developed a genetically engineered male mosquito (OX513A) which would be able to live and mate with female mosquitoes, but their offspring were programmed to die in infancy which would, in turn, reduce the population size. This worked well, but only to an extent; some of the offspring were found alive and able to mate. “This crossbreeding might have actually strengthened the Jacobina aegypti, the study suggested—sparking a media firestorm … ” These trials were tested in Brazil, Panama, and the Cayman Islands. When word reached the Florida Keys, the public was highly against it; they refused to be “ … treated as ‘guinea pigs’ for the ‘superbug’ or ‘Robo-Frankenstein’ mosquito” and for the “Oxitec to treat US states ‘as testing grounds for these mutant bugs.’”
Oxitec has now engineered a new male mosquito (OX5034) which is designed to carry a protein that will essentially kill off and inhibit chances of survival for female offspring. The goal, again, is to shrink the population size, but this time focusing on just the females rather than the population as a whole since the males are not responsible for the carrying or spread of the disease.
Tensions are still apparent amongst residents of Florida however. The mosquitoes still need to be released for trials for a minimum of ten weeks to ensure that the female offspring do not reach adulthood, and there is still a risk of this not being successful or for something to go awry amongst the crossbred offspring. Many are furious that “‘[w]ith 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 …’” as stated by a policy director for the International Center for Technology Assessment and Center for Food Safety.
The people are right and it would be wise for officials to take a step back for a moment and direct their attention elsewhere to more current and pressing matters. Meanwhile, Oxitec can use their energy for additional research to be able to ensure the public with full assurance that the genetically engineered mosquitoes, and crossbred offspring, will not pose any health risks to humans or any environmental issues to wildlife which feed on these insects. If the EPA tells Oxitec to push off the release date to do further research, and government officials turn their attention towards the COVID-19 pandemic, then the public might feel more at ease knowing that their safety regarding the pandemic is coming first.