It sounds like something out of science fiction, but the buzz is real. Local authorities in the Florida Keys have okayed a plan to release genetically modified mosquitoes into the community. These mutant skeeters have been specifically designed to prevent the spread of dengue fever and other diseases.
The project was given the green light on Wednesday by the Monroe County Mosquito Control District. This comes after approvals by the state and federal government. The 750 million mosquitoes that they plan to release have been genetically-engineered to produce dead offspring.
The hope is that when these all-male mosquitoes mate with female mosquitoes, they will not be able to reproduce. As a result, Florida could see a decrease in those annoying flies within a year.
In the meantime, the 750 million additional mosquitoes shouldn’t bother people too much. Only female mosquitoes bite people or animals for their blood.
The plan is intended to limit the breeding of the Aedes aegypti mosquito. That’s because that species, in particular, spreads dengue and other diseases, and has shown resistance to pesticides in the past.
While this will be the first time that genetically-engineered insects have been released in the United States, it’s not a global first. Oxitec, the British company that designed these mosquitoes, already released them in Brazil. Scientists with the company say that the program led to significant declines in the population of disease-carrying insects.
“We have shown that the release of mosquitoes in a neighborhood results in 95 percent suppression compared to areas with no release,” said Nathan Rose, director of regulatory affairs at Oxitec.
Not everyone is so hopeful about the plan. Some public health officials have questioned whether this is the best approach, or time, to control mosquitoes in Florida.
Jaydee Hanson, policy director at the International Center for Technology Assessment and Center for Food Safety, is a naysayer. “With all the urgent crises facing our nation and the state of Florida—the COVID-10 pandemic, racial injustice, climate change—the administration has used tax dollars and government resources for a Jurassic Park experiment,” she said.
She added that the Environmental Protection Agency “unlawfully refused to seriously analyze environmental risks.”
In response, Oxitec insists that it has done the hard work. The company says it has spent 18 years of public-private collaboration with universities, governments and global foundations and has worked with more than 200 scientists from over 20 countries.