Fixing Florida’s Mosquito Problem With More Mosquitoes?

This article was published on August 23, 2020.

Mosquitoes are the most troublesome insects in Florida due to its hot, wet climate. Currently, there are around 80 different species of mosquitoes in the state. The mosquitoes that are considered the most serious threats are Aedes Aegypti and Aedes Albopictus, both of which are vectors of the Zika Virus. While the virus is not always fatal, it can have devastating effects on the human body some of which include birth defects for pregnant women and some neurological disorders such as Guillain-Barre syndrome.

Oxitec, an insect-combating tech company, has created a genetically modified male mosquito and called it OX5034. The company altered the mosquito to produce female offspring that die in their early stages, well before hatching and growing large enough to bite. Only female mosquitoes bite for blood, which they need for their eggs. Male mosquitoes only feed on nectar.

On May 1st, 2020, The Environmental Protection Agency approved an experimental use permit which allows Oxitec to release 750 million OX5034 mosquitoes, over a two year period, into the Florida Keys, a string of islands located in southern Florida. The aim of this project is to reduce the number of mosquitoes that carry disease.

However, locals and environmental support groups strongly disapprove of this plan. “With all the urgent crises facing our nation and the State of Florida- the Covid-19 pandemic, racial injustice, climate change- the administration has used our tax dollars and government resources for a Jurassic Park experiment,” states Jaydee Hanson, policy director for the International Center for Technology Assessment and Center for Food Safety. A petition has been created against the proposal and has filled up with over 100,000 signatures already.

In response to these outbursts, Grey Frandsen, the CEO of Oxitec, says “This is an exciting development because it represents the ground-breaking work of hundreds of passionate people over more than a decade in multiple countries, all of whom want to protect communities from Dengue, Zika, Yellow Fever, and other vector-borne diseases.” Campaigns reminded Floridians that the OX5034 doesn’t bite because he’s male, but that didn’t help. Media quoted furious locals refusing to be test subjects for the “superbug” or “Robo-Frankenstein” mosquito, as they called it.

In 2010, outbreaks of Dengue, spread by the Aedes Aegypti, left the Florida Keys Mosquito Control District desperate for new options. Despite all the efforts put forth to contain the Aedes Aegypti, there was no change.

After many failed attempts, the district reached out to Oxitec for advice. The company had created a male mosquito and called it OX513A which was programmed to die before reaching adulthood. Some of the OX513A would be allowed to live and mate, but their offspring would inherit the “kill” programming and die, keeping the population growth under control. OX513A had been tested in the Cayman Islands, Panama, and Brazil, and Oxitec reported a high success rate with each release.

The EPA spent many years looking into the mosquito’s effects on human health as well as its effect on the environment. But while they were doing this, Oxitec created a second-generation genetically modified mosquito, OX5034, and scrapped the OX513A.

Environmental support groups are scared that the release of OX5034s into the population could endanger some species of birds, insects, and mammals that mainly feed on mosquitoes. “The release of genetically engineered mosquitoes will needlessly put Floridians, the environment, and endangered species at risk,” says Dana Perls, a food and technology program manager at Friends of Earth.

Local health officials confirm that there are no plans in place to move forward with the project at this time as their current focus is on the COVID-19 pandemic, but they agree that it is a possibility to consider for the future.