The biotechnology company Oxitec plans to release genetically modified (GM) mosquitoes in the Florida Keys, saying its technology will combat dengue fever, a potentially life-threatening disease mainly transmitted by the Aedes aegypti mosquito.
According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, there were 41 travel-related cases in Florida during 2020, compared with 71 cases transmitted locally by mosquitoes.
As of May 2021, eight dengue cases and zero Zika virus cases were reported in the USA.
Michael Bonsall, a mathematical biologist at the University of Oxford, is not affiliated with Oxitec, but has collaborated with the company in the past and worked with the World Health Organization to produce a GM mosquito-testing framework, wrote an NCSU article published on April 12, 2021.
Bonsall and other scientists think a combination of approaches is essential to reducing the burden of diseases — and that, maybe, newer ideas like GM mosquitoes should be added to the mix.
Oxitec’s OX5034 mosquitoes are the first GM mosquitoes approved for release in the USA.
Oxitec’s mosquitoes, for instance, are genetically altered to pass what the company calls “self-limiting” genes to their offspring. When released GM males breed with wild female mosquitoes, the resulting generation does not survive into adulthood, reducing the overall population.
Oxitec has been proposing to experimentally release GM mosquitos in the Keys since 2011. Critics say they are concerned about the possible effects GM mosquitoes could have on human health and the environment.
The company has already conducted a trial with the OX5034 mosquitoes in Brazil and released more than a billion of a previous version, called OX513A.
At Oxitec’s laboratory in the U.K., the company genetically engineers the mosquitoes, giving the insects the “self-limiting” gene that makes the females dependent on the antibiotic tetracycline. Without the drug, they will die.
Eggs from these genetically altered mosquitoes —will be shipped to the Keys, which will hatch both male and female insects
Mosquitoes require water to mature from an egg to an adult; when Oxitec’s team adds water to the boxes the mosquitoes will be deployed in, both GM males and GM females will hatch. With no tetracycline present in the box, the GM females are expected to die in the early larval stages.
The male mosquitoes will survive and carry the gene. When they leave the boxes, the insects will, hypothetically, fly away to mate with wild females to pass the gene to the next wild generation, according to Nathan Rose, head of regulatory affairs at Oxitec.
Skeptics of Oxitec’s GM mosquitoes include local residents, physicians, scientists, and environmental activists. Many of these opponents say they aren’t anti-GMO, but disagree with how the approval process has been handled.
One group has even kept a running list of what it sees as Oxitec’s wrongdoings since it first began experimental releases. The list includes Oxitec’s lack of disease monitoring in the countries where it has released mosquitoes; the unknown price of its technology; and complaints that the company has overstated the success of some of it its trials.
Oxitec has accomplished 100% of the UK government’s “COVID-19 Secure” requirements but has adopted further policies and programs above and beyond government guidance to keep our people safe.