Imagine a swarm of mosquitoes invading your neighborhood, buzzing around in your homes, and biting you and those around you in the community.
This is a likely scenario for the people living in Florida Keys when British researchers gain approval from the FDA to release millions of genetically modified mosquitoes in the residential neighborhood. These GMO mosquitoes are meant to be used as a treatment for two painful and deadly viral diseases: dengue and chikungunya.
Both viral diseases are becoming growing threats in the U.S., but reported cases are still quite rare. Globally, however, nearly 50 million people each year contract dengue and this debilitating fever kills 2.5 percent of those with severe cases of the disease. Chikungunya, which causes painful contortions, is on the rise in the Caribbean, affecting more than a million people last year.
According to mosquito controllers these viruses are transmitted by female Aedes aegypti mosquitoes, and there are no vaccines or known cures to treat the diseases. Attempts to kill the Aedes aegypti using insecticides have largely failed as these mosquitoes have evolved over time and are now resistant to four of the six bug sprays used to kill them.
Oxitec, the British biotech company behind the proposal to release genetically modified mosquitoes in the United States has created a way of breeding mosquitoes that incorporates parts of certain proteins from the E. coli bacteria and the herpes simplex virus. These GMO mosquitoes also contain cabbage and coral DNA in their genomes. These insertions of foreign DNA kill mosquito larvae before they mature.
Oxitec plans on releasing genetically modified males that cannot transmit the viral diseases in the neighborhood of Key Haven, Florida. British researchers postulate that the male mosquitoes will mate with wild type females carrying the viral diseases and kill off the resulting offspring, subsequently decreasing the population of virulent Aedes aegypti mosquitoes.
Doubts about this proposal have emerged, and people living in the residential area of Key Haven are fearful of the thought of being bitten by a GMO mosquito. Marilyn Smith, a resident in the community, remained skeptical and noted that dengue and chikungunya outbreaks have not occurred in recent years.
“If I knew that this was a real risk and lives could be saved, that would make sense. But there are no problems. Why are we trying to fix it? Why are we being used as the experiment, the guinea pigs, just to see what happens?”
The company’s representative, Chris Creese pointed out that Oxitec has released nearly 70 million GMO mosquitoes in several countries without any negative consequences, and affirmed her belief that the mosquitoes were safe.
“We are confident of the safety of our mosquito, as there’s no mechanism for any adverse effect on human health. The proteins are non-toxic and non-allergenic,” she said.
Oxitec plans to release these mosquitoes this spring, but it remains to be seen if the FDA will approve such a measure and endorse the proposal to let the bugs fight each other to eradicate disease.