Millions of GMO Insects Could Be Released in Florida Keys

25 Jan 2015 | Author: | No comments yet »

Coming soon to the U.S.: Millions of genetically modified mosquitos.

This undated photo made available by Oxitec shows a genetically modified Aedes aegypti mosquito in their U.K. lab. FILE – In this Thursday, Oct. 4, 2012 file photo, Jason Garcia, a field inspector with the Florida Keys Mosquito Control District, tests a sprayer that could be used in the future to spray pesticides to control mosquitos in Key West, Fla. Food and Drug Administration is considering releasing the non-biting male Aedes aegypti mosquitoes modified by Oxitec to pass along a birth defect to their progeny, thus killing off the next generation of the mosquitoes that can carry dengue and chikungunya.

More than 130,000 signed a Change.org petition against the experiment. “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 U.S. city, is particularly vulnerable. “An arriving person would be infectious for several days, and could infect many of the local mosquitoes,” Doyle said. “Within a few weeks you’d likely end up with several infected mosquitoes for each infected visitor.” There are no vaccines or cures for dengue, known as “break-bone fever,” or chikungunya, which causes painful contortions. U.S. cases remain rare for now, but dengue sickens 50 million people annually worldwide and kills 2.5 percent of the half-million who get severe cases, according to the World Health Organization. But because Aedes aegypti don’t travel much and are repeatedly doused with the same chemicals, they have evolved to resist four of the six insecticides used to kill them. They patented a method of breeding Aedes aegypti with fragments of proteins from the herpes simplex virus and E. coli bacteria as well as genes from coral and cabbage.

This synthetic DNA has been used in thousands of experiments without harming lab animals, but it is fatal to the bugs, killing mosquito larvae before they can fly or bite. Oxitec’s lab workers manually remove modified females, aiming to release only males, which feed on nectar and don’t bite for blood like females do. Oxitec has built a breeding lab in Marathon and hopes to release its mosquitoes this spring in Key Haven, a neighborhood of 444 homes closely clustered on a relatively isolated peninsula at the north end of Key West.

But critics accused Oxitec of failing to obtain informed consent in the Caymans, saying residents weren’t told they could be bitten by a few stray females overlooked in the lab. Instead, Oxitec said only non-biting males would be released, and that even if humans were somehow bitten, no genetically modified DNA would enter their bloodstream. “What Oxitec is trying to spin is that it’s highly improbable that there will be negative consequences of this foreign DNA entering someone that’s bitten by an Oxitec mosquito,” said Lounibos. “I’m on their side, in that consequences are highly unlikely. Oxitec should still do more to show that the synthetic DNA causes no harm when transferred into humans by its mosquitoes, said Guy Reeves, a molecular geneticist at Germany’s Max Planck Institute. To build trust in any cutting-edge science, a range of independent experts — not just the company that stands to gain or the regulatory agency involved — should have enough access to data published in peer-reviewed journals to be able to explain the specific benefits and risks, he said. “Failing to do this almost inevitably means a potential for controversy to be sustained and amplified,” said Reeves, adding that mosquito-borne diseases need more solutions. “We should not be closing down productive avenues, and genetically modified mosquitoes might be one of them.” With the FDA watching, Doyle and Oxitec’s product development manager, Derric Nimmo, checked their frustration at public meetings in November and December, repeatedly fielding the same questions from the same critics.

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