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Aedes aegypti mosquito. (Photo: public domain)

Plan to Release GMO Mosquitoes 'A Science Experiment Run Amok'

Effort by biotechnology firm meant to stop tropical diseases in Florida could have risky impacts, critics say.

Andrea Germanos

A biotechnology company's plan to release millions of genetically engineered mosquitoes the Florida Keys to combat tropical diseases has been criticized as "a science experiment run amok" by a watchdog organization.

The plan, which local officials hope to get underway this spring, is meant to control the population of Aedes aegypti, which spreads dengue fever and chikungunya.

The state of Florida reported (pdf) six cases of locally acquired dengue and 11 of chikungunya in 2014.

The release of the genetically modified (GMO) Aedes aegypti would be run by British company Oxitec, which states that it would be an "environmentally friendly" and safe approach. sums up how the plan would work: "Oxitec, founded in 2002, found a way to genetically modify male mosquitoes to make them 'sterile,' so when they are released and mate with female mosquitoes in the wild, the offspring die in the larval stage."

The company has admitted that some female GMO mosquitoes would be released as well.

The plan is in order, local officials say, because spraying programs have caused the mosquitoes to develop resistance to the pesticides, rendering them useless.

The organization Food and Water Watch, however, says the plan is risky, and on Thursday submitted a letter (pdf) to the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) urging the agency not to approve the release and to require Oxitec to submit a New Animal Drug Application (“NADA”) as the agency's own Guidance requires. From their letter:

...for FDA not to halt the release of the Oxitec mosquitoes — at least to subject the genetically engineered organism to review as a new animal drug — on the grounds that the agency has insufficient information on the animal’s safety would be to violate Congress’s clear instructions that new animal drugs are to be presumed unsafe unless they are approved by the agency through the NADA process.

The organization's letter also points to lingering questions about effects on humans from bites by the female GMO mosquitoes, potential for the GMO mosquitoes to "thriv[e in the wild," and for tetracycline (used in Oxitec's process) as potentially contaminating nearby waterways.

Additionally, Food and Water Watch researcher Genna Reed pointed last month to anew study showing other possible unintended side effects of the release of the GMO mosquitoes:

Research published in the peer-reviewed journal “PLoS Neglected Tropical Diseases” looked at the spread of populations of a different species of mosquito, the Asian Tiger Mosquito, in Panama. This species only just arrived in the country in 2002 and has spread quickly throughout the region in just over a decade. Asian Tiger mosquitoes are considered one of the most invasive species in the world and carry many diseases including dengue fever and West Nile virus. Since Oxitec’s GMO mosquitoes are supposed to wipe out populations of yellow fever mosquitoes, it is very likely that Asian Tiger mosquitoes would rapidly step up to fill the void, negating any benefits of the GMO mosquitoes.

Not only is there the chance that Asian Tiger mosquitoes will fill the niche left behind from lowered yellow fever mosquito populations, but the GMO mosquitoes could actually make a quick comeback. The scientists predict that because “…Ae. aegypti (yellow fever mosquitoes) ha[ve] similar demographic and dispersal patterns as Ae. Albopictus [Asian Tiger mosquitoes], Ae. aegypti populations may quickly rebound via recolonization after cessation of GM programs.” This scenario would ensure the irrelevance of Oxitec’s mosquito trials, since “GM strategies might have only short-term effects on vector population size and may commit Panama to a repeated and costly program for long-term [arthropod-borne virus] control.”

"GMO mosquitoes are nothing but a science experiment run amok," Food & Water Watch Executive Director Wenonah Hauter stated Thursday. "Releasing them into the environment will not be worth the effort, expense or potential risk."

Hauter's organization has not been alone in questioning the release of the Oxitec mosquitoes.

At a town hall meeting in December held by Oxitec and the Florida Keys Mosquito Control District, for example, residents also expressed concern with the plan, including Beth Kirwin, who said, "We don't want to be guinea pigs."

A petition stating "We need to make sure the FDA does not approve Oxitec's patent" has also gathered nearly 150,000 signatures so far.

The Florida Keys Mosquito Control District is set to hold another public meeting on the release this month.

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