GMO Mosquitoes in Florida: Should We be Worried?

January 26, 2015 Updated: January 26, 2015

There’s been consideration that genetically modified mosquitoes will be released in the Florida Keys to combat an invasive pest. 

British scientists are seeking approval to release the insects in a neighborhood to take out Aedes aegypti, a tiger-striped, invasive mosquito that carries dengue and chikungunya–both painful diseases.

As evidenced by a Change.org petition with more than 100,000 signatures, some people are worried the GMO mosquitoes could cause ecological problems.

But according to one expert, there’s little to worry about.

“A GMO mosquito release can supplement traditional activities by further decreasing populations. These GMO a mosquitoes are sterile males who are unable to produce viable offspring and thereby diminish populations,” Dr. Amesh A. Adalja, who works with vector-borne diseases at the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center, told Epoch Times.

He noted the GMO bugs are actually “an elegant solution and have been released with success in several countries.” The GMO mosquitoes are sterile and cannot “reproduce and there is really no risk to their release,” he continued.

The company that wants to release the insects is Oxitec, a firm that “has used advanced genetics to develop a new solution to controlling populations of the dengue mosquito and other harmful insects in a way that is sustainable, environmentally friendly and cost-effective,” it says on its website.

Other researchers have attempted to assuage fears about GMO mosquitoes, but that hasn’t stopped people from worrying.

“Even though the local community in the Florida Keys has spoken — we even passed an ordinance demanding more testing — Oxitec is trying to use a loophole by applying to the FDA for an ‘animal bug’ patent. This could mean these mutant mosquitoes could be released at any point against the wishes of locals and the scientific community. We need to make sure the FDA does not approve Oxitec’s patent,” reads a portion of the Change.org petition.

Dengue and chikungunya are considered growing threats in the U.S., but even potential boosters say those responsible must do more to show that benefits outweigh the risks.

“I think the science is fine, they definitely can kill mosquitoes, but the GMO issue still sticks as something of a thorny issue for the general public,” said Phil Lounibos, who studies mosquito control at the Florida Medical Entomology Laboratory. “It’s not even so much about the science — you can’t go ahead with something like this if public opinion is negative.”

Mosquito controllers say they’re running out of options that can kill Aedes aegypti, a tiger-striped invader whose biting females spread these viruses. Climate change and globalization are spreading tropical diseases farther from the equator, and Key West, the southernmost city in the continental U.S., is particularly vulnerable.

 

The Associated Press contributed to this report.