Florida locals debate using mutant mosquitoes to fight Zika

    Federal regulators recently approved a test run releasing genetically modified mosquitoes in the Florida Keys and it’s causing residents to ask themselves what they fear more – disease carrying mosquitoes or the idea of setting lab-grown animals loose into the wild.

    The controversy only escalated when the US Food and Drug Administration recently approved a test trial releasing populations of Aedes aegypti in Key Haven, Florida. The mosquito species is the primary culprit behind the Zika virus as well as dengue and yellow fever.

    The FDA concluded the proposed trial “will not have significant impacts on the environment” after reviewing commentary on things like the food chain and habitat. They specifically targeted the study in Key Haven because it’s an island community and risk is low that the mutant population would spread out of the area.

    Still, some residents are rallying against the experiment, calling it an “irresponsible and frightening” move that could come with unintended consequences. And the movement is gaining traction. Almost 170,000 people have signed a petition calling on the government to reject the trial in lieu of more thorough environmental research.

    Residents will vote this November in a nonbinding referendum whether to go ahead with the experiment. And it’s causing advocates on both sides to garner support in an effort that appears to be fueled more by fear than fact. The idea of dispatching droves of mutant animals on the local environment just doesn’t sit well with people, even if the evidence so far says it won’t do any damage.

    The company producing the mosquitoes, Oxitec, has already released the modified mosquitoes in Brazil, Panama and the Cayman Islands where they saw a 90% reduction in local populations. Traditional insecticides can’t even come close to that level of effectiveness.

    “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,” Oxitec’s CEO Hadyn Parry said in a statement.

    Oxitec plans to release non-biting male mosquitoes equipped with a gene that causes their offspring to die soon after birth. The company is able to limit the populations to males because male larvae typically run smaller than their female counterparts. So in tanks full of mosquito eggs, screens with holes just big enough to let male larvae through will trap female larvae and drown them before they come up for their first breath of air.

    Still, the company admitted a tiny percentage of female mosquitoes would be released along with their brothers, meaning some GMO mosquitoes could bite people. On top of that, the community fears how the experiment may negatively impact tourism to the popular vacation destination.

    Director of the Florida Keys Mosquito Control District Michael Doyle sympathizes with them over the concern. But ultimately, the fear of the unknown might be getting in the way of the fight against a deadly disease.

    “I want to say I understand and appreciate both the people’s desire to protect each other and the environment; that’s admirable. And in a democracy, their ability to voice their opinion about it, I fully defend those things,” Doyle told the Tampa Bay Times. “It’s just – what’s disheartening is, when solid facts and reasoning are presented, that’s not always successful in swaying people’s intellect.”

    Kelly Paik
    Kelly Paik writes about science and technology for Fanvive. When she's not catching up on the latest innovations, she uses her free-time painting and roaming to places with languages she can't speak. Because she rather enjoys fumbling through cities and picking things on the menu through a process of eeny meeny miny moe.