Genetically modified mosquitoes have arrived in the United States

For the first 12-week phase, blue and white boxes containing around 12,000 GMO eggs developed by a UK-based US-based company called Oxitec were placed in six small areas of Ramrod Key, Cudjoe Key and Vaca. Key. When water is added, mosquitoes hatch, mature, and enter the environment over the next week.

A small vocal group of Florida Key residents have fought the release of what they call “mutant mosquitoes” since the project was announced – and they are furious.

“Our opposition has been long and strong,” said Barry Wray, executive director of the Florida Keys Environmental Coalition. “We live here, this is our home, and they force people by their throats.”

“The only thing you can legally do at this point is stand in your yard with a bug sprayer,” said Mara Daly, a resident of Key Largo, Fla., Who fought liberation for eight years. “You can’t touch a box, but you can fog the shit out of your own backyard if you don’t want to be part of the trial.”

First release of GM mosquitoes in the United States

The Florida Keys Project, illuminated by the US Environmental Protection Agency in May 2020, has been approved to release up to 750 million genetically modified mosquitoes in 2021 and 2022.

Target of the program: Aedes aegypti, an invasive mosquito species that carries several potentially fatal diseases, including yellow fever, dengue and Zika virus.

The rapid spread of Zika became a global public health emergency in 2016 after an alarming spike in babies born with abnormally small heads – a condition called microcephaly – in mothers infected with Zika in Brazil and French Polynesia. Aedes aegypti quickly spread the virus to at least 34 countries and territories, including Texas and Florida in the United States.
Dengue outbreaks, often epidemic in Puerto Rico, the Caribbean, Latin America and Southeast Asia, are also hitting South Florida: Key Largo experienced a small outbreak in 2019 and 2020, while Key West experienced outbreaks in 2009 and 2010.

Known as “rupture fever” because of the piercing headaches and joint pain it creates, dengue fever also causes flu-like symptoms, including fever and rash. Severe cases can cause bleeding, shock, organ failure, and even death.

In reality, the 2021 version will include far less than the $ 750 million approved by the EPA, said Nathan Rose, who heads Oxitec’s regulatory affairs.

In the initial phase, 144,000 male mosquitoes will be released during the three-month pilot period, Rose said, after which further testing will be carried out to ensure mosquitoes mate with females in the wild and reduce the population as expected.

If successful, up to 20 million additional male mosquitoes could be released at the height of mosquito season this year.

A mortal companion

The current Oxitec method targets female Aedes aegypti mosquitoes – because only the female mosquito bites for blood, which she needs to mature her eggs. Males feed only on nectar and do not bite people, so they are not carriers of disease.

While many mosquitoes live in grasses and fields, the female Aedes aegypti prefers to live around her favorite prey – humans – and can breed in containers as small as flower vases and shower drains. Containers forgotten or thrown in backyards or construction sites? Even better.

Unlike species which carry other diseases that can invade and bite viciously, the female Aedes aegypti is devious. She prefers to hide under your chair, just waiting for the right time to attack, usually during the day. Capturing a sip or two of your blood, it deposits any virus it carries and goes away – passing it on to the next victim.

Oxitec’s solution to the problem is OX5034 – a 2.0 version of its original modification Aedes aegypti. Unlike version 1.0, which was designed to kill all offspring, the new model has been genetically modified to pass a deadly gene that only kills females.

The kill switch is triggered during the larval stage of the female’s growth – well before hatching and becomes large enough to bite and spread disease.

“The second generation of the mosquito allows us to target only females and allows males to continue doing more work, which contributes to efficiency,” said the CEO of Oxitec. Gray Frandsen.

Only females that are grown in an environment with antibiotics from the tetracycline family will live to mate and give birth, Frandsen said. These females are kept at the Oxitec production plant in Oxford, England.

The eggs they produce are shipped to Florida to be released, but since there are no antibiotics in the release boxes, just food and water, the only OX5034 mosquitoes that will survive and fail. will fly are males, Rose explained.

Genetically engineered butterflies released into the wild to kill pests

Once mature, GM males mate with local wild females, passing on the deadly gene that kills their female offspring. Male OX5034 mosquitoes can survive for several generations, about three to four months, by passing their modified genes on to subsequent male offspring.

If enough GMO males mate with local females, the biting female population declines within months – as does disease transmission.

A long fight in Florida

The state of Florida issued an experimental use permit in June 2020 after seven state agencies unanimously approved the project. But it took over a decade to get that approval.

    750 million genetically modified mosquitoes approved for release in the Florida Keys

Local dengue outbreaks a decade ago left the Florida Keys Mosquito Control District desperate for new options. Despite an avalanche of efforts – including aerial, truck and backpack spraying and the use of mosquito-eating fish – local control efforts to contain Aedes aegypti with larvicides and pesticides have been largely ineffective.

And expensive too: Even though Aedes aegypti makes up only 1% of its mosquito population, Florida Keys Mosquito Control typically spends over $ 1 million a year, or one-tenth of its total funding, on its fight.

The district contacted Oxitec for help in 2012. The company had developed a male mosquito named OX513A, programmed to die before adulthood unless grown in water containing the tetracycline antibiotic.

Lots of OX513A would be allowed to live and mate with females; however, their male and female descendants would both inherit the “kill” program and die, limiting population growth. Since few offspring survived, the production and mass release of the GM male was consistent to control local populations.

The OX513A mosquito had been field tested in the Cayman Islands, Panama and Brazil, with Oxitec reporting a high success rate with each release. For example, a test in an urban area of ​​Brazil reduces the presence of local Aedes aegypti by 95%.
Florida releases experimental mosquitoes to fight Zika
But when word spread in the Florida Keys that a GMO mosquito was on the way, the public reaction was swift. More than 100,000 people have signed a Change.org petition against the proposal; this number rose to over 237,000.

The EPA and the United States Food and Drug Administration have spent years investigating the mosquito’s impact on human health and the environment, leaving time for public participation along the way, Frandsen said. .

But public relations campaigns reminding Floridians that the male GM mosquito does not bite did not solve the problem. The media quoted angry residents refusing to be treated as “guinea pigs” for the “superbug” or “robo-Frankenstein” mosquito.

In the middle of the evaluation, Oxitec developed the second generation OX5034, which it dubbed the “friendly” Aedes aegypti mosquito, and withdrew the application for the first.

New mosquito, similar concerns

Today, environmental groups and local advocates are concerned that the new “Friendly” mosquito has not been as rigorously tested as the first generation, a claim Oxitec strongly refutes.

FDA Approves Genetically Modified Mosquitoes That Fight Zika
One concern is that some female larvae may live and make their way to local sources of antibiotics, defusing their genetic kill switch. Pharmaceuticals, including antibiotics, are found in the water supply in the United States, mainly due to “human excretion and drugs flushed down the toilet,” according to the US Geological Survey.

“In my opinion, some of these women will find antibiotics, just because there are so many antibiotics in the environment, and therefore some of them will live,” said environmentalist Jaydee Hanson, director of policy. at the Center for Food Safety, which advocates organic, ecological and sustainable food alternatives.

“This is actually something that was carefully considered by regulators when they approved this project,” Rose of Oxitec told CNN. “They looked to see if there was all potential environmental sources of tetracycline in the project release area and the conclusion was “No, there were none”. “

The species Aedes aegypti flies very short distances, generally traveling no more than 150 meters, or less than a mile, in its two week shelf life.

“So the chance of a female mosquito actually finding tetracycline in a place where she could lay her eggs and then make some of the female offspring survive is extremely, extremely small,” Rose said.

Despite a long public awareness campaign led by local officials, including monthly webinars designed to address citizen concerns, critics like Barry Wray believe many residents of Florida Key have no idea the arrival of “mutant” mosquitoes.

“You can walk down the street and knock on anyone’s door, and I guarantee you about 80% of people won’t know any of this,” Wray said.

“We have gone above and beyond when it comes to public engagement,” said Oxitec Frandsen CEO. “Can you imagine another large multinational chemical company that runs 14 public webinars, is at farmers’ markets, or goes door to door to talk about the technology? It never happens.

Critics say they won’t stop fighting the release, telling CNN they’re speaking with EPA officials from the Biden administration and may even consider legal action.

“I hope civil unrest will occur,” said Mara Daly of Key Largo. “Other than that, you can hire a private mosquito control company to come to your entire community and have them sprayed. There is no way to opt out of this essay at this point.

About Alma Ackerman

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