Will genetically modified mosquitoes ever be released into the natural environment? Maybe. Perhaps. Often. Sometimes. Sadly, the announcement of the Florida Keys later this year could irrevocably distort this critical issue.
The release can be precedent-setting and should certainly not be viewed like this.
It is intended to release millions of genetically modified male Aedes aegypti mosquitoes, to produce their female progeny only when they are exposed to tetracycline, an antibiotic.
If all goes as expected, the released mosquitos are mating with wild females, the female offspring is dying and the A. aegypti population is plummeting, with less adult females producing the next generation.
This would have an advantage for public health. A. aegypti is blamed in the keys for spreading the virus caused by dengue fever, which is often severe and often fatal. Zika, chikungunya, and yellow fever can also be transmitted by the species.
It’s a smart technological idea, and it’s not without merit. Nobody wants these diseases, but in 2020, the prevalence of dengue is not very high in the keys and the others have not yet been discovered in the keys.
The mosquito does not seem especially valuable. If the releases have been continued over time and have been successful, A. aegypti can be completely removed. But it has only recently been introduced to the clubs and is possibly not here to play a crucial ecological role and the clubs are being blessed with many other mosquitoes. Because male mosquitoes don’t bite, releases from Oxitec wouldn’t be really troubling.
Opponents of the plan point out that the Oxitec shift, Oxitec’s estimate, survives some female larvae. They also say that the mosquitoes may threaten the people they bite as well as the ecosystem.
True, the release should have been researched more frankly, more extensively and longer. At the same time, the hazard argument has the unprecedented quality typical to debates on genetically modified organisms: maybe mosquitoes with novel Oxitec genes pose particular risks for humans, or something, but it is difficult to see what the risks are. And spraying insecticide is the alternative.
Nevertheless, the release in the keys remains very contentious, and the proposition is most disappointing in encounters with the public. In a 2016 referendum in Monroe County the county overall supported the release firmly, but Key West voted against it where it was released. The idea required a thorugh and frank public debate given the resistance and novelty of using genetic editing techniques to transform the climate.
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