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.
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.
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.
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.
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 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.
“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”. “
“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.
“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.