Florida's 'Jurassic Park experiment' to release genetically modified male mosquitoes to control dengue, zika

Genetically modified male mosquitoes named OX5034 has received federal approval to be released into the Florida Keys now through 2022, despite objection of many local residents and environmental activists

                            Florida's 'Jurassic Park experiment' to release genetically modified male mosquitoes to control dengue, zika
(Getty Images)

Florida will host a "Jurassic Park" styled experiment involving genetically altered mosquitoes. The state authorities and the United States Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) have approved the trial, ignoring objections from the local population and environmental groups. The idea behind the experiment is to release genetically altered mosquitoes into the environment, with the hopes that they may help control diseases such as chikungunya, zika, dengue and the like. The US is witnessing an uptick in these infections in the recent past due to climate change.

But there are concerns: the trial might lead to unintended effects. "With all the urgent crises facing our nation—the Covid-19 pandemic, racial injustice, climate change—the administration has used tax dollars and government resources for a Jurassic Park experiment, except without the island," Jaydee Hanson, policy director at the International Center for Technology Assessment and Center for Food Safety, said in a statement. "What could possibly go wrong? We don't know because they unlawfully refused to seriously analyze environmental risks," he added.

A British-based biotech company named Oxitec has designed the genetically altered population. They worked on Aedes aegypti, a species that carries viruses responsible for dengue and zika. Females are known to transmit the infection to humans. In their labs, the researchers created a version of the species, a male mosquito OX5034, carrying a specific protein. It kills females before growing into adulthood, thereby preventing the spread of the disease. It does not affect males as they do not spread mosquito-borne diseases.

On June 16, the Florida department of agriculture and consumer services reportedly approved Oxitec's request of experimenting in Florida Keys, a string of tropical islands. Last month, the EPA greenlit the trial in Florida and another site: Texas. 

Controlling mosquito populations through pesticides is expensive and ineffective. (Getty Images)

"This is an exciting development because it represents the ground-breaking work of hundreds of passionate people over more than a decade in multiple countries, all of whom want to protect communities from dengue, zika, yellow fever, and other vector-borne diseases,” Grey Frandsen, Oxitec’s CEO, said in a statement.

Mosquito-borne illness is on the rise in Florida. Pesticides and larvicides that control their population are expensive. The Florida Keys Mosquito Control has an annual operating budget of around $11 million dedicated to fighting the diseases. They are ineffective too. So, in 2012, the district reached out to Oxitec for help. After eight years, Oxitec will finally put their technology to the test.  They will have to notify the EPA 72 hours before releasing the altered mosquitoes. They will be allowed to conduct tests for at least 10 weeks. The British company claims its trial in Brazil was successful.

However, environmentalists have raised concerns over risks to other species. "The Florida Keys and Houston and the surrounding communities are home to some of the most diverse and threatened species in our country. Once again, the Trump administration is callously disregarding scientific experts and the will of communities to force this risky experiment through," said Dana Perls, Program Manager, Food and Technology Campaign, Friends of the Earth US. Conservation groups said they intend to sue the EPA for not assessing the environmental impacts.

 “People here in Florida do not consent to the genetically engineered mosquitoes or to being a human experiment," Barry Wray, the executive director of the Florida Keys Environmental Coalition added. 

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