Tens of thousands of male mosquitoes are being released into the wild in Florida. But these are no ordinary mosquitoes: They are genetically modified, and they are being released specifically throughout the state. It’s part of a plan to fight disease by releasing 1 billion mosquitoes across two states, but it gives some people the creeps.
Workers placed boxes of mosquito eggs — two on Kujou Key, one on Ramrod Key and three on Waka Key — on Thursday, and expect them to hatch in about a week. They will repeat this process over the next months, releasing 12,000 mosquitoes a week for 12 weeks. A total of 144,000 mosquitoes is disgusting.
The project, the first release of GMO mosquitoes in the U.S., was started by the Florida Keys Mosquito Control District (FKMCD) in conjunction with Oxitec, a private British biotechnology company. It’s an effort to contain the spread of dengue, Zika and yellow fever.
“As we see resistance developing to some of our current control methods, we need new tools to control this mosquito,” Andrea Leal, executive director of the Florida Keys Mosquito Control District, said in a statement.
The idea is that GMO mosquitoes will reduce the population of Aedes aegypti, a species of mosquito common in the Florida Keys that spread these insect-borne diseases. In the Keys, this species makes up only 4 percent of the total mosquito population. But last year they caused 70 cases of dengue fever in Key Largo, and the risk of spreading other diseases is a huge concern.
Only females of the Aedes aegypti species bite humans to obtain blood for egg maturation. So scientists created GMO mosquitoes, which they named the species OX5034, to produce offspring from females that die as larvae. Oxitec, the company that created the GMO mosquitoes, and the FKMCD hope the bugs will mate with female Aedes aegypti. Since the offspring of the females won’t survive long enough to reproduce, it will reduce the mosquito population that spreads disease. They hope so, anyway.
This is only the first phase of the project. Oxitec has received experimental approval from the Environmental Protection Agency to release 1 billion of these genetically modified mosquitoes on 6,600 acres of land in Florida and Texas over the next two years.
Oxitec claims the method is “safe” and “environmentally friendly.” The company boasts successful field trials in the Cayman Islands, Panama, Malaysia and Brazil. The company also notes that the project has been approved by the EPA and the Florida Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services, and has received support from the Center for Disease Control and a board of independent consultants.
But Keyes residents aren’t convinced that releasing GMO mosquitoes was a good idea. And they have reason to be concerned. Locals told Vice that they were not notified of exactly where the mosquitoes would be released until the Friday before the release began. This is, to say the least, careless and rude behavior.
A 2019 Yale University study also warned that the plan could backfire. These scientists found that while most female offspring from GMO mosquitoes die, 3 percent to 4 percent of them usually survive to adulthood, and it is unclear whether they are infertile. This means that by mating with disease-spreading mosquitoes, Oxitec mosquitoes may create hybrid mosquitoes that may be more insecticide-resistant than wild mosquitoes and exacerbate the spread of disease.
There are also concerns about how laboratory mosquitoes will interact with Florida Keys ecosystems. One field study of mosquitoes from Brazil showed that lab-generated mosquito genes had spread into wild mosquito populations. It is unclear what ecological consequences this may have for the Florida Keys, which is worrisome because the region is home to many species of wildlife. Last month, a group of independent experts testified to the Florida Keys Mosquito Council, raising these issues. Advocates are demanding that the EPA stop the project, even though some mosquitoes are about to end up in the wild.
“The release of genetically modified mosquitoes puts Florida residents, the environment and endangered species at risk in the midst of a pandemic,” Dana Perls, food and technology program manager at the environmental organization Friends of the Earth, said in a statement. “This mutant mosquito release is about maximizing Oxitec’s profits, not the urgent need to fight mosquito-borne diseases.”