Not only are mosquitoes annoying, but they are absolutely devastating to public health because they spread disease like the Zika virus and dengue fever. Oxitec, a British biotech company, has designed mosquitoes that are genetically modified to battle the bad mosquitos, and they’ve signed an agreement with the Cayman Islands Mosquito Research and Control Unit (MRCU) to let loose millions of these “friendly” mosquitoes to fight Zika.
Oxitec’s male mosquitoes don’t bite or transmit disease, but they do breed with females of Aedes aegypti, the species of mosquito passing on diseases like Zika, dengue, and chikungunya. Because of the genetics of the modified males, the resulting children don’t last long, and the mosquitoes die with minimal – if any – impact to the environment. According to Oxitec, their mosquitoes actually protect the environment.
The Cayman Islands and Oxitec have worked together in the past, but their plans became more imperative as Zika spread. MRCU tested the mosquitoes and found they “reduced the target mosquito population by 96 percent.” With the signing of this new agreement, millions of Oxitec’s modified mosquitoes will be released on Grand Cayman.
First, the groups will spend two months informing locals about how the mosquitoes work. Second, they will be released in an area where 1,800 people reside and the results tested against a similar area of the island where the mosquitoes are not released. Pending further approval, they will release the mosquitoes in other areas as well.
MRCU Director Bill Petrie said, “We have wanted to remove this invasive pest for a long time, but this has proven very difficult using currently available tools on an island the size of Grand Cayman, so we have been looking for new approaches…We believe this environmentally friendly tool can greatly reduce the population of Aedes aegypti and has the potential to eliminate it from Grand Cayman.”
It’s possible the friendly mosquitoes could be released in the Florida Keys as well; just this year the FDA declared a preliminary Finding of No Significant Impact for Oxitec mosquitoes.