A British-based biotech company plans to release 750 million genetically modified mosquitoes into the Florida keys as part of an experiment designed to help reduce the mosquito population in Florida, and along with it the spread deadly diseases such as Malaria, West Nile virus and St. Louis encephalitis.
Oxitec, which is funded by the Bill and Melinda Gates foundation has been given approval by both the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and the Florida department of agriculture and consumer services to move forward with the trial.
The biotech firm has been experimenting with mosquitoes as a delivery system for vaccines for years.
“Genetically-modified mosquitoes are showing promise in controlling other vector-borne diseases, so we look forward to exploring their use alongside complementary interventions for malaria,” Philip Welkhoff, director of the malaria program at the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation said in 2018.
The key is the development of a self-limiting technology that kills off female mosquitoes. Only female mosquitoes actually sting and can therefore spread disease. When male mosquitoes, who have been genetically equipped with a certain type of protein in laboratories are released into the wild and mate with females, that protein is passed on to female offspring only, killing them before they reach maturity.
Surviving male offspring can then mate again with other wild females. The technology can survive for up to ten generations after which no genetically-modified mosquitoes remain.
According to Oxitech, the technology affects only a certain species of mosquito, sparing other species that are helpful to the environment they say.
When the EPA announced earlier this month that it was rolling regulations back on companies due to the Covid19 outbreak, Oxitech announced its intentions to move forward with the vaccine trial.
Jaydee Hanson, policy director for the International Center for Technology Assessment and Center for Food Safety described the move a “Jurassic Park experiment.”
“What could possibly go wrong ?” Hanson asked. “We don’t know, because they unlawfully refused to seriously analyze environmental risks.”
Barry Wray, executive director of the Florida Keys Environmental Coalition, also sounded alarms.
“People here in Florida do not consent to the genetically engineered mosquitoes or to being human experiments,” he said.
Photo by James Gathany/CDC