The EPA approved Oxitec’s mosquitoes for release this spring. Some scientists and locals want to halt the deployment
If you are in the US, there's more information on how you can help with the campaign against the experimental release of GM mosquitoes here: https://stopgmm.com
First GMO mosquitoes to be released in the Florida Keys
BY TAYLOR WHITE
Undark, Apri 12 2021
[excerpt only; links to sources at this URL]
* The EPA approved Oxitec’s mosquitoes for release this spring. Some scientists and locals want to halt the deployment.
THIS SPRING, the biotechnology company Oxitec plans to release genetically modified (GM) mosquitoes in the Florida Keys. Oxitec says its technology will combat dengue fever, a potentially life-threatening disease, and other mosquito-borne viruses — such as Zika — mainly transmitted by the Aedes aegypti mosquito.
While there have been more than 7,300 dengue cases reported in the United States between 2010 and 2020, a majority are contracted in Asia and the Caribbean, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. In Florida, however, there were 41 travel-related cases in 2020, compared with 71 cases that were transmitted locally.
Native mosquitoes in Florida are increasingly resistant to the most common form of control — insecticide — and scientists say they need new and better techniques to control the insects and the diseases they carry. “There aren’t any other tools that we have. Mosquito nets don’t work. Vaccines are under development but need to be fully efficacious,” says Michael Bonsall, a mathematical biologist at the University of Oxford, who is not affiliated with Oxitec but has collaborated with the company in the past, and who worked with the World Health Organization to produce a GM mosquito-testing framework.
Bonsall and other scientists think a combination of approaches is essential to reducing the burden of diseases — and that, maybe, newer ideas like GM mosquitoes should be added to the mix. Oxitec’s mosquitoes, for instance, are genetically altered to pass what the company calls “self-limiting” genes to their offspring; when released GM males breed with wild female mosquitoes, the resulting generation does not survive into adulthood, reducing the overall population.
But Oxitec has been proposing to experimentally release GM mosquitos in the Keys since 2011, and the plan has long been met with suspicion among locals and debate among scientists. Some locals say they fear being guinea pigs. Critics say they are concerned about the possible effects GM mosquitoes could have on human health and the environment. In 2012, the Key West City Commission objected to Oxitec’s plan; in a non-binding referendum four years later, residents of Key Haven — where the mosquitoes would have been released — rejected it, while residents in the surrounding county voted in support of the release. With the decision left up to the Florida Keys Mosquito Control District, officials approved the trial to be conducted elsewhere in the Keys.
According to Oxitec, the release was delayed due to a transfer of jurisdiction over the project from the U.S. Food and Drug Administration to the Environmental Protection Agency.
The company reapplied for approval to release a new version of the mosquitoes, called OX5034, in the Keys. In May, the EPA granted a two-year experimental use permit, which the agency can cancel at any time. State and local sign-off soon followed — finally giving the project the greenlight.
Oxitec’s OX5034 mosquitoes are the first GM mosquitoes approved for release in the U.S. The company has already conducted a trial with the OX5034 mosquitoes in Brazil and released more than a billion of a previous version, called OX513A, there and in other locations over the years — including the Cayman Islands. The company says it is confident in the effectiveness and safety of the technology.
But some scientists want to hit pause on Oxitec’s Florida trial, to find what they say is a fairer process in deciding to release the mosquitoes. Others want to see clearer proof that this technology is even necessary, claiming that the company has only released its most positive data with the public and has kept other key data, including whether the mosquitoes curb disease transmission, private. And if the release actually launches as planned, some Keys residents say they aim to interfere.
Critics also say that Oxitec failed to engage with local communities in Florida and get their consent to release the mosquitoes. “What’s the most upsetting is that the very people that are going to be most impacted, both by the benefits or the risks of such a decision, have like the smallest voice in how these choices are made. I think that’s a really big issue,” says Natalie Kofler, a molecular biologist and bioethicist who founded Editing Nature, a platform that advocates “for inclusive decision-making processes to steer” the use of genetic technology. “If Oxitec doesn’t do this right,” she adds, “we could have huge impact on delaying the use of other beneficial technologies like that in the future.”
OXITEC’S OX5034 MOSQUITOES are programmed to combat the transmission of mosquito-borne illnesses by suppressing local Aedes aegypti populations. Oxitec — which is U.S.-owned and based in the United Kingdom — describes their mosquitoes as “friendly” because they will only release males, which, unlike females, do not bite humans or transmit disease.
At Oxitec’s laboratory in the U.K., the company genetically engineers the mosquitoes, giving the insects the “self-limiting” gene that makes the females dependent on the antibiotic tetracycline. Without the drug, they will die. Eggs from these genetically-altered mosquitoes — which will hatch both male and female insects — will be shipped to the Keys. Mosquitoes require water to mature from an egg to an adult; when Oxitec’s team adds water to the boxes the mosquitoes will be deployed in, both GM males and GM females will hatch. With no tetracycline present in the box, the GM females are expected to die in early larval stages.
The male mosquitoes will survive and carry the gene. When they leave the boxes, the insects will, hypothetically, fly away to mate with wild females to pass the gene to the next wild generation, according to Nathan Rose, head of regulatory affairs at Oxitec. Kevin Gorman, the company’s chief development officer, says the local female mosquito population will be increasingly reduced — which will also reduce the number of wild male mosquitoes in the treatment areas.
Gorman emphasized to Undark that the EPA and other regulators found no risk in using tetracycline in breeding their genetically-altered mosquitoes. But some scientists think the presence of this antibiotic in the environment does pose a risk. According to Jennifer Kuzma, co-founder and co-director of the Genetic Engineering and Society Center at North Carolina State University, tetracyline is commonly used in Florida to prevent bacterial diseases in agriculture — particularly in citrus groves — and to treat bacteria in sewage plants. The use of the antibiotic for these purposes may mean that it will remain in the environment, especially in water where the mosquitoes breed, which could allow Oxitec’s female mosquitoes to survive. While the company does not plan to release the mosquitos near areas where the antibiotic is used, Kuzma says the EPA’s risk assessment did not include testing of any standing water for tetracycline — something, she adds, “would have been easy enough to do for good due diligence.”
Skeptics of Oxitec’s GM mosquitoes include local residents, physicians, scientists, and environmental activists. Many of these opponents say they aren’t anti-GMO, but disagree with how the approval process has been handled. One group has even kept a running list of what it sees as Oxitec’s wrongdoings since it first began experimental releases. The list includes Oxitec’s lack of disease monitoring in the countries where it has released mosquitoes; the unknown price of its technology; and complaints that the company has overstated the success of some of it its trials.
“I cannot trust this company. I cannot trust this technology,” says Mara Daly, a resident of Key Largo who says she’s been following Oxitec’s plans for nine years.
“This is not a traditional pesticide,” she adds. “ This is not a chemical that you can trace. This is something completely different, new emerging technology and we need better regulation.”
Phil Goodman, chairman of the Florida Keys Mosquito Control District (FKMCD), an independently-elected commission carrying out mosquito control within Monroe County, says that many of those who discredit Oxitec’s evidence do not understand the technology. “They’re fearmongering,” he says.
“They have very little credibility here in the Florida Keys as far as I’m concerned,” he adds.
But people like Daly and Barry Wray, executive director of the Florida Keys Environmental Coalition, disagree. “We want to know it’s safe,” says Wray, who notes that his group more generally supports GM technology. “We don’t have another Florida Keys ecosystem. We don’t have another Florida Keys community. We have this one.”
Daly, Wray, and others point to what they perceive as the FKMCD’s disrespect for public opinion. They argue that the community wasn’t given a chance to consent before the EPA approval. There was a 30-day public forum in September 2019 about Oxitec’s technology application, with 31,174 comments opposing release and 56 in support. A statement emailed to Undark by Melissa Sullivan, an EPA spokesperson, noted that the agency considered these comments during the review, but critics think it happened too quickly to be of real use.