A British biotech company has received an experimental use permit from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to release millions of genetically modified mosquitoes in the Florida Keys this summer.
The Florida Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services and the Florida Keys Mosquito Control District (FKMCD) board must approve the permit before Oxitec can proceed.
The EPA approved Oxitec’s permit May 1 despite 31,174 people objecting to it and 56 people supporting it during a 30-day comment period that expired in mid-October.
The five-member FKMCD board considered and rejected a similar Oxitec proposal in 2016 after a nonbinding referendum revealed Keys residents were split on living amid experimental lab hatched mosquitoes.
Residents of Key Haven, where the releases would occur about 4 miles north of Key West, opposed the experiment while, overall, Monroe County residents marginally approved it.
Oxitec, a subsidiary of U.S. biotech corporation Intrexon, withdrew the permit but resubmitted a new proposal in 2019 – and a new genetically modified organism (GMO), the OX5034, its second-generation Aedes aegypti mosquito.
Under its experimental use permit, Oxitec seeks to release millions of lab bred OX5034 Aedes aegypti males weekly for two years, beginning in the Keys this summer and in Harris County, Texas, in 2021.
Aedes aegypti, the “yellow fever mosquito,” can spread dengue fever, chikungunya, Zika fever, Mayaro and yellow fever viruses and other diseases.
Oxitec offered its GMO mosquitoes as a solution to reduce the invasive species after the Zika virus outbreak in Miami-Dade County during the summer of 2016, when Zika, which pregnant women can pass onto fetuses and cause birth defects, first emerged in the U.S. in significant numbers.
By the end of 2016, more than 5,100 Zika cases had been reported in the U.S., up from 62 cases in 2015, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, which cited 218 cases in Florida and eight in Texas.
According to Oxitec, when its lab bred GMO males are released and mate with wild females, their female offspring die.
“Continual, large-scale releases of these OX5034 GM males should eventually cause the temporary collapse of a wild population,” the company said.
“We are excited to be joining forces with local government and communities to carry out this new project that will allow us to demonstrate, for the first time on U.S. soil, our proven, safe and environmentally friendly solution,” Oxitec CEO Grey Frandsen said in a statement.
“For close to 10 years, we have been looking at new technologies to control the Aedes aegypti mosquito,” former FKMCD Executive Director and current board member Andrea Leal said in a statement that accompanied the announcement. “This is a difficult mosquito to control and, therefore, every possible option must be considered.”
The FKMCD board meets June 16. Opponents said there’s been little opportunity to comment on what the board’s plans could be other than on the FKMCD Facebook page.
Oxitec has been conducting field trials since 2009 in the Cayman Islands and in Brazil and Panama since 2011 to debated results.
A 2019 study of Oxitec mosquitoes released around Jacobina, Brazil, found genes from “wild” mosquitoes in the GMO altered males, while the engineered genes from the lab-bred mosquitoes were not found in the wild population.
Scientific Reports and Nature Magazine in March issued an “Editorial Expression of Concern” about Oxitec’s claims regarding the effectiveness of their lab bred mosquitoes.
“The important thing is something unanticipated happened,” said Yale University’s Jeffrey Powell, who participated in the study. “Things don’t always work out the way you expect.”