FDA approves genetically modified mosquitoes to combat Zika virus in Florida

Oxitec has the FDA's approval to release of thousands of its GMO mosquitoes in the Florida Keys to combat the Zika virus. (Credit: Oxitec Ltd/Twitter)

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has approved the release of genetically engineered mosquitoes in Florida, assuring anxious locals that the experimental trial would have “no significant” environmental impact.

The genetically modified Aedes aegypti mosquitoes, created by the British firm Oxitec, are part of an effort to combat the spread of the mosquito-borne Zika virus. The mosquitoes are altered so their offspring die before they are able to reproduce, reducing the population of the Aedes mosquito that transmits Zika as well as dengue, yellow fever and chikungunya.

Florida officials recently said the Aedes mosquito had transmitted 15 Zika infections in the Wynwood neighborhood of Miami – the first cases to be caused by mosquitoes on the U.S. mainland. The infections have amplified existing concern over a more widespread epidemic of Zika-related birth defects that have been plaguing countries throughout Latin America.

In addition to the FDA’s approval, the Florida district’s board has pledged to seek residents’ approval before moving forward with the trial. But some Florida residents have signed a petition expressing concern about the release of Oxitec’s mosquitoes, warning they could have unknown and unintended effects on the ecosystem.

“The company wants to use the Florida Keys as a testing ground for these mutant bugs. This release has not one single peer review,” read one petition, while another suggested that Oxitec’s mosquitoes may have triggered the Zika epidemic to begin with.

Despite fierce public opposition, it seems the release of the mosquitoes – which have also been released on a trial basis in Panama, Brazil and the Cayman Islands – will happen regardless of the vote, which will take place this November, according to the Guardian.

Oxitec has consistently assured the public that the experimental trial is not a rash response to the Zika epidemic.

“We’ve been developing this approach for many years, and from these results we are convinced that our solution is both highly effective and has sound environmental credentials,” said Oxitec CEO Hadyn Parry.

“We’re delighted with the announcement today [on Aug. 5]that the FDA, after their extensive review of our dossier and thousands of public comments for a trial in the Florida Keys, have published their final view that this will not have a significant impact on the environment.”

Parry also called on authorities to grant Oxitec emergency authorization to release the insects in Miami as a control measure.

In any case, Oxitec’s mosquitoes are still a long way away from being used on a wide scale, according to Beth Ranson from the Florida Keys Mosquito Control District, which has been in discussion with Oxitec years before Zika even reached the western Hemisphere.

“It’s a small scale trial in just one neighborhood, so it wouldn’t really be available for commercial use,” Ranson said in an interview with Humanosphere. The firm would first need to have the trial proved for effectiveness, move into a larger scale trial to prove effectiveness, and so on, she explained.

Ranson added that it would also take months to determine whether this initial trial of genetically modified mosquitoes is even effective.

Zika is believed to cause birth defects including microcephaly, in which children are born with abnormally small heads and severe, lifelong developmental problems. The virus also disproportionately affects those living in poorer regions where standing water serves as a breeding ground for the insects, and women lack the means to obtain contraceptives.

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Lisa Nikolau

Lisa Nikolau is a Madrid-based reporter for Humanosphere, covering gender equality, indigenous rights and poverty in Latin America and worldwide. Find her on Twitter at @lisanikolau, email lisa.nikolau@humanosphere.org or see her latest work at www.lisanikolau.com