Genetically Modified Mosquito Study in Florida to Halt Spread of Viruses Sparks Eco Debate

Company says the mosquitoes could be used to help halt spread of Zika virus.

ByABC News
April 20, 2016, 1:23 PM

— -- Florida residents are raising concerns about a proposed study using genetically modified mosquitoes designed to lower the populations of the Aedes aegypti mosquito, the species known to spread Zika, dengue and Chikungunya viruses.

The proposed trial would allow the release the specially designed mosquitoes from the British company Oxitec in order to disrupt the breeding of the insects and hopefully lower the population, according to the U.S. Food and Drug Administration. The FDA said last month there was "low" probability of adverse effects on humans or animals as a result of the proposed trial.

Called OX513A mosquitoes, the insects are genetically modified so that the males have a specific protein that kills any offspring they have with females in the wild. Only males insects will be used in this test. Only female Aedes aegypti mosquitoes bite and draw blood, which helps them produce eggs.

However, some residents of the Monroe County, Florida, have voiced their concern over the potential long-term effects of introducing these GMO mosquitoes into the area. A petition aimed at stopping the trial has garnered more than 166,000 supporters after it was started by Mila de Mier of Key West, Florida.

"Nearly all experiments with genetically modified crops have eventually resulted in unintended consequences: superweeds more resistant to herbicides, mutated and resistant insects also collateral damage to ecosystems," she wrote on the petition.

At a meeting with mosquito control officials, de Mier told ABC affiliate WPLG that she should "have the right to choose if I want this or not.”

“Telling mosquito control and telling the FDA we do not want to be guinea pigs," she said of the reason she was protesting.

There will now be a non-binding vote over the proposed trial, according to Phil Goodman, chairman of the Florida Keys Mosquito Control District. The vote is expected to occur in the next few weeks.

The threat of the Zika virus has put renewed pressure to combat the spread of the Aedes aegypti mosquito, which is notoriously difficult to eradicate. These genetically modified mosquitoes have already been tested in similar trials in Brazil, Panama, Malaysia and the Cayman Islands, according to FDA documents.

The possibility that these mosquitoes could be toxic to people, spread disease, or have adverse impacts on the environment was found to be low or negligible by the FDA.

Flaminia Catteruccia, associate professor of Immunology and Infectious Diseases at Harvard University School of Public Health, said the mosquitoes could be a needed tool to fight the spread of the Aedes aeygpti mosquito.

"I think it’s a potentially a very useful strategy to reduce the number of mosquitoes," Catteruccia said. "I think really the major risk isn’t with the environment or ecology but that it wouldn’t work."

While Catterucci said there needs to be careful monitoring of the ecological impact of these insects, she said her biggest concern is about how effectively these modified mosquitoes drop the population.

"The major risk is that the system will not work so that the mosquitoes will find a way to bounce back," Catterucci said, meaning that "it will have to be continuously carried out" to be effective.

ABC News' Julie Barzilay and Ebonee Williams contributed to this report.