As health officials predicted, the Zika virus is beginning to spread across south Florida, and now a type of genetically modified (GM) mosquito designed to fight the virus has been approved by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA). [1]

While the threat of being infected with the Zika virus is still considered low in the United States, residents of an area just north of Miami are on edge after it was revealed that mosquitoes, rather than humans, have begun transmitting the illness to people there.

Last week, the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) warned women who are pregnant or planning to become pregnant and their partners to steer clear of the Wynwood neighborhood north of downtown Miami after more than a dozen people had been infected with Zika there by mosquitoes.

Prenatal exposure to Zika has been shown to cause microcephaly, a rare birth defect, in children.

On August 5, the FDA announced it had approved a field test of GM mosquitoes to help combat the Zika virus.

The Aedes aegypti mosquitoes are engineered by Oxitec Ltd. so that their offspring die before they can reproduce. [2]

FDA Gave Preliminary Approval Earlier this Year for GM Mosquitoes

The FDA gave Oxitec preliminary approval earlier this year to conduct a field test and to deploy its OX513A mosquitoes in Key West. (The agency was awaiting public comment before formally approving the test.) [1]

The approval was based on the findings of a newly released environmental assessment that concluded the genetically engineered mosquitoes would “not have significant impacts on the environment.”

Before the field test can begin, Oxitec must first gain approval from the Florida Keys Mosquito Control District, which will be polling residents later this fall.

Such field tests have already been conducted in Brazil, the Cayman Islands, and Panama, where a 90% reduction in local mosquito populations was reported. The Florida Keys Mosquito Control District has had just a 30-60% success rate using traditional control methods, such as spraying insecticides from trucks and planes, and mosquito traps.

Many people have deep concerns about GM mosquitoes. Oxitec has said there are no “practical risks” posed by the mosquitoes, but it takes years for the effects of genetic modification experiments to be fully realized.

The Fears of GM Mosquitoes

You see, Oxitec, uses the antibiotic tetracycline as a chemical switch for the genetic killing mechanism in its GM mosquitoes, Dr. Helen Wallace, director of GeneWatch UK, told The New York Times in February 2015. One of the very real, very frightening dangers of releasing these genetically engineered insects is that they could spread antibiotic-resistance bacteria into the environment, posing a risk to human health.

In the U.S., veterinary use of tetracycline has been phased out, and it is already banned in many countries.

Read: Genetically Modified Insect Factories – A New Source of Superbugs?

Additionally, according to GeneWatch UK, some of Oxitec’s claims regarding the effectiveness of using its GM mosquitoes are questionable.

In Key Haven, a suburb near Key West where the trial would take place, many residents have erected signs declaring “no consent” to the release of the GM mosquitoes. [2]

Kathryn Watkins, a Key Haven resident recruited by trial opponents, is seeking election to the board overseeing the Florida Keys Mosquito Control District. She said:

“It just has everyone scared. The genetically modified male has to mate with a wild female, and the wild female has to bite us in order to lay eggs.”

Watkins said residents see themselves as unwilling test subjects. She added:

“They are using us in this trial without consent.”

Oxitec Chief Executive Hadyn Parry said he will ask the FDA for an emergency-use authorization that would make the mosquitoes available to help combat Zika in the U.S.

That’s not likely to happen, said FDA spokeswoman Theresa Eisenman, because there is no “fast-track” designation for new animal drugs, and emergency-use provisions in the applicable law do not apply to animal drugs.

Sources:

[1] The Verge

[2] The Huffington Post


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About Julie Fidler:
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Julie Fidler is a freelance writer, legal blogger, and the author of Adventures in Holy Matrimony: For Better or the Absolute Worst. She lives in Pennsylvania with her husband and two ridiculously spoiled cats. She occasionally pontificates on her blog.