750 mil genetically modified mosquitoes approved for release in Florida: ‘What could possibly go wrong?’

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Local authorities have signed off on a plan to release 750 million genetically modified mosquitoes into the Florida Keys in 2021 and 2022 after state and federal authorities previously approved.

In May, the Environmental Protection Agency gave it’s seal of approval to the pilot project which aims to introduce the modified mosquitos as a way to avoid having to spray insecticides to control the Aedes aegypti, the species of mosquito that carries Zika virus as well as dengue, chikungunya and yellow fever, CNN reported Thursday.

Called OX5034, the altered mosquito produces females that die in the larvae stage instead of maturing to adulthood so they can bite and spread disease. Only female mosquitos bite to ingest blood, which is needed for her eggs to mature. Male mosquitos, by comparison, only feed on nectar and as such, do not carry diseases.

Oxitec, the Britain-based company developing the pilot project and producing the mosquitos, has also won approval to release a batch of the insects in Harris County, Texas, beginning next year.

But the plan is not without controversy.

“With all the urgent crises facing our nation and the State of Florida — the COVID-19 pandemic, racial injustice, climate change — the administration has used tax dollars and government resources for a Jurassic Park experiment,” Jaydee Hanson, policy director for the International Center for Technology Assessment and Center for Food Safety, said in a statement.

“Now the Monroe County Mosquito Control District has given the final permission needed. What could possibly go wrong? We don’t know, because EPA unlawfully refused to seriously analyze environmental risks, now without further review of the risks, the experiment can proceed,” she added.

In fact, the program is not new to the Trump administration; it actually began under President Donald Trump’s predecessor and has been studied for more than a decade.

Reports circulated in 2011 that experimental trials involving Oxitec’s genetically modified mosquitos had been done in the Cayman Islands in 2009 and 2010.

And the Florida Keys Mosquito Control District has been seeking approval for the current plan since at least 2012.

As such, the EPA’s approval has been years in the making, CNN noted, after the federal entity studied the impact of genetically modified mosquitos on humans and the environment.

“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,” said Oxitec CEO Grey Frandsen in May.

Sam Bissett, a communications specialist with Harris County Public Health, said permission for the Texas trial has not yet been received.

“Local health officials confirm that there is no agreement in place or plans to move forward with the project at this time,” Bissett said. “Our focus is on our efforts with the Covid-19 pandemic.”

Houston officials, where Harris County is located, have been considering the mutant mosquito plan since 2017, according to the Houston Chronicle.

The Florida Keys Mosquito Control District definitely has a financial interest in eradicating the Aedes aegypti in some way other than spraying. The agency spends about $1 million annually — one-tenth of its budget — on insecticide spraying, though that species of mosquito only amounts to about 1 percent of the total population.

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Jon Dougherty

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