Tens of thousands of male mosquitoes are released into the wild in Florida. But these are not ordinary mosquitoes: They are genetically modified, and they are specially released throughout the state. It's part of a plan to fight disease by releasing 1 billion mosquitoes across two states, but it makes some people shiver.
Workers placed boxes of mosquito eggs - two at Kuzhou Ki, one at Ramrod Key, and three at Waka Ki - on Thursday, and expect them to hatch in about a week. They will repeat this process over the next months, releasing 12,000 mosquitoes per week for 12 weeks. A total of 144,000 mosquitoes is disgusting.
The project - the first ever release of GMO mosquitoes in the United States - was started by the Florida Keys Mosquito Control District (FKMCD) in partnership with private British biotechnology company Oxitec. This is an attempt to contain the spread of dengue, Zika and yellow fever.
“As we see resistance to some of our current control methods develop, we need new tools to control this mosquito,” Andrea Leal, executive director of the Florida Keys Mosquito Control District, said in a statement.
The idea is that GMO mosquitoes will reduce the population of Aedes aegypti, a species of mosquito common in the Florida Keys that spread these insect-borne diseases. In the Keys, this species accounts for only 4% of the total mosquito population. But last year they caused 70 cases of dengue fever in Key Largo, and the risk of other diseases spreading is of great concern.
Only females of the species Aedes aegypti bite humans to obtain blood for egg maturation. So the scientists created a GMO mosquito, which they named OX5034, to reproduce from females that die as larvae. Oxitec, the company behind the GMO mosquito, and FKMCD hope the beetles will mate with the female Aedes aegypti. Since the offspring of females cannot survive long enough to reproduce, this will reduce the population of mosquitoes that spread disease. They hope, anyway.
This is only the first stage of the project. Oxitec received a pilot use permit from the Environmental Protection Agency to release 1 billion of these genetically modified mosquitoes on 6,600 acres of land in Florida and Texas over the next two years.
Oxitec claims this method is "safe" and "environmentally friendly". The company boasts successful field trials in the Cayman Islands, Panama, Malaysia and Brazil. The company also notes that the project has been approved by the EPA and the Florida Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services, and has received support from the Centers for Disease Control and a board of independent advisors.
But Kees residents aren't convinced it was a good idea to release GMO mosquitoes. And they have reasons for concern. Locals told Vice that they were not notified of exactly where the mosquitoes would be released until Friday before the release began. This is, to say the least, careless and rude behavior.
A 2019 Yale University study also warned that the plan could backfire. These scientists found that while most female offspring from GMO mosquitoes die, 3% to 4% of them usually survive to adulthood, and it is unclear if they are infertile. This means that by mating with disease-spreading mosquitoes, Oxitec mosquitoes can create hybrid mosquitoes that may be more insecticide-resistant than wild mosquitoes and exacerbate the spread of disease.
There are also concerns about how laboratory mosquitoes will interact with the ecosystems of the Florida Keys. One field study of mosquitoes from Brazil showed that genes from mosquitoes created in a laboratory spread across a wild mosquito population.It is unclear what environmental impact this could have on the Florida Keys, which is worrying as the region is home to many species of living life. Last month, a panel of independent experts testified to the Florida Keys Mosquito Board raising these issues. Advocates are demanding that the EPA stop the project, even as some mosquitoes are about to end up in the wild.
The release of genetically modified mosquitoes puts Florida residents, the environment and endangered species at risk in the midst of a pandemic, "Dana Perls, food and technology program manager at Friends of the Earth, said in a statement." This release of mutant mosquitoes is dedicated to maximizing Oxitec's profits. not the pressing need to combat mosquito-borne diseases."
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