It sounds like the premise for a 1950s horror movie: release 750 million genetically altered mosquitoes in the Florida Keys and see what happens. But Florida and the federal government have approved this plan for 2021 and 2022.
“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,” Jaydee Hanson, policy director for the International Center for Technology Assessment and Center for Food Safety, said in a statement.
The GMO mosquito, named OX5034, is a modified version of Aedes aegypti developed by the biotech company Oxitec. This species carries dengue, Zika, chikungunya and yellow fever. The new-and-improved mosquito produces female offspring that die while still in the larval stage. For mosquitoes, females feed on blood and males on nectar. So, female babies born to OX5034s will die before they mature enough to bite humans and spread disease.
The EPA approved the pilot project for the Florida Keys in May to test whether the OX5034 approach will work better than controlling Aedes aegypti by spraying insecticide. The project just received final approval by local authorities — often over the protests of residents worried about the implications of modifying mosquitoes. Some Floridians have called OX5034 a “Robo-Frankenstein” mosquito and a “superbug” and worry that it will endanger the birds, insects and mammals that eat mosquitoes.
While dengue fever is uncommon in the U.S., local outbreaks occasionally occur. Hawaii, Florida and Texas have suffered the most cases. Outbreaks in the Florida Keys in 2009 and 2010 strapped the Florida Keys Mosquito Control District, which budgets upward of $1 million per year — a tenth of its funding — to fight Aedes aegypti. This species accounts for only 1% of the area’s mosquito population.
Harris County, Texas, also plans to release OX5034 in 2021. Both Florida and Texas officials are basing their decisions on field tests Oxitec conducted in Brazil, Panama and the Cayman Islands. In a trial area of Brazil, OX513A, a predecessor to OX5034, reduced the Aedes aegypti population by 95%.
Image via Hans Braxmeier