Genetically modified mosquitoes that could help to fight the spread of the Zika virus may soon be released in a Florida community following the U.S. Food and Drug Administration's final assessment showing that a field test of the insects would have "no significant impact" on the environment.
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The FDA decision released today means that Oxitec, the British biotechnology company that produces the GMO mosquitoes, is one step closer to releasing them for a field test in the small community of Key Haven, Florida.
The company has created genetically modified Aedes aegypti mosquitoes, the same insects that transmit Zika virus. The GMO variety passes on genetic traits to their offspring that cause them to die in the wild.
The proposal is to release GMO mosquitoes, virtually all of them male, to mate with non-GMO females in the wild and produce offspring that die quickly and therefore reduce the overall population of the Zika-carrying insects. In past tests published by the company and its partners, the introduction of the GMO variety reduced the population of mosquitoes by more than 90 percent.
However, the genetically modified insects, already being used in Brazil to fight Zika, can't be released for a test in Key Haven without a vote of approval from the Florida Keys Mosquito Control Board.
The board's executive director Michael Doyle released a statement emphasizing the need to be proactive in stopping the Aedes aegypti mosquito.
"Our ultimate goal is a reduction of the Aedes aegypti population to a point where it cannot transmit diseases such as dengue, chikungunya and [Zika]," Florida Keys Mosquito Control District Executive Director Michael Doyle said in a statement. He pointed out if the small test is successful they will look for ways to expand the technology. " The Aedes aegypti is the toughest mosquito to control and [the mosquito control board] is looking at several different technologies.”
The prospect of releasing GMO mosquitoes in the area has sparked protests by some residents of Key Haven. Signs that read "No Consent" have sprouted across many lawns.
Following contentious public debates, most members of the Florida Keys Mosquito Control Board have said they will follow the public's wishes about whether to allow the test and will hold their vote after an upcoming, nonbinding public referendum on the issue.
A local realtor who helped to spearhead protests against a possible test of GMO mosquitoes in Key Haven said she was upset by the FDA decision. Mila de Mier started a Change.org petition that garnered more than 160,000 signatures against going ahead with the trial.
"I’m very disappointed. I think it’s irresponsible. I think it’s a decision made under political pressure," de Mier told ABC News today. "With GMO mosquitoes, it could take years to even make a dent in a place like Miami" to lower the overall mosquito population.
But Oxitec CEO Hadyn Parry said he was pleased by the FDA assessment.
The federal agency's decision "has come after a good passage of time and study of a huge amount of evidence we have provided over last few years," Parry said.
He added that he also hopes the FDA will consider allowing the technology to be used under an "emergency use authorization" in certain Zika-affected areas such as Puerto Rico.
Currently, however, fast-track approval for use of GMO mosquitoes is not possible because the FDA treats the technology as an animal drug rather than a treatment for humans for which fast-track approval would be possible.