Oxitec created a modified male mosquito with offspring that dies before hatching. Named OX5034, the GMO mosquito was designed as an alternative to insecticides.
According to the Oxitec website, the company was founded in 2002 as a spinout from the University of Oxford.
Oxitec is allegedly a “pioneer in using genetic engineering to control insect pests that spread disease and damage crops.” It is a subsidiary of Intrexon Corporation that engineers biology to develop solutions for “some of the world’s biggest problems.”
Meanwhile, Intrexon Corporation creates “biologically based products that improve the quality of life and the health of the planet.” Not fishy at all.
Oxitec plans to release 750 million OX5034s into the Florida Keys, something that sounds like the beginning of a doomed science-fiction movie. But the most shocking thing here is the fact that Oxitec received the EPA's approval in May.
With the GMO mosquitoes, female offspring will die in the larval stage. Oxitec claims this will ensure that mosquito populations can die off rapidly. The company's creation will target the Aedes aegypti mosquito, which can carry deadly diseases like dengue, yellow fever and the Zika virus.
Following the EPA’s approval, Oxitec released a statement back in May to explain the plan. The modified mosquitoes will be released into Florida over a two-year period, beginning this summer.
By next summer, the GMO mosquitoes will also be released in Harris County, Texas.
The GMO mosquito project has been seeking approval for over 10 years but last June, seven Florida agencies also unanimously approved the project, even giving Oxitec the Experimental Use Permit it needed to proceed with the plan. (Related: More than 750 million GMO mosquitoes to be released over Florida Keys – what could go wrong?)
Environmental advocacy groups and area residents are appalled at this unusual plan to address mosquito-borne diseases since the GMO mosquitoes can also disrupt nearby ecosystems.
On August 19, Wednesday, Jaydee Hanson, policy director for the International Center for Technology Assessment and Center for Food Safety, expressed these concerns. “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 tax dollars and government resources for a ‘Jurassic Park’ experiment,” said Hanson.
He added that no one knows what might happen if the potentially dangerous plan goes wrong, particularly since the EPA “unlawfully refused to seriously analyze environmental risks.” Without a further review of the risks, the ill-conceived experiment can now proceed.
Ed Russo, president of the Florida Keys Environmental Coalition, explained that the EPA's “evasive answers and lack of management skills” hint at their “unprofessionalism and arrogance which speaks loudly of an unprepared regulatory process.”
The GMO mosquitoes were developed after severe outbreaks of mosquito-spread dengue fever in the Keys in 2009 and 2010.
In a bid to control the situation, the Florida Keys Mosquito Control District contacted Oxitec for solutions in 2012. The company then proposed OX513A, a genetically modified male mosquito. But many Floridians objected to the project.
A Change.org petition against the GMO mosquitoes immediately gathered more than 100,000 signatures. The residents referred to OX513A as “robo-Frankenstein” mosquitoes and “superbugs.”
To address the residents' concerns, Oxitec developed OX5034, a 2.0 version of its original OX513A “friendly mosquito” that was then approved by the EPA.
In May, Grey Frandsen, Oxitec’s CEO, released a statement expressing the company's wish to win “the growing war against disease-spreading mosquitoes,” which requires a new generation of “safe, targeted and sustainable tools for governments and communities alike.”
Frandsen added that the company aims to “empower governments and communities” by giving them ways to “effectively and sustainably control these disease-spreading mosquitoes without harmful impact on the environment and without complex, costly operations.”
Frandsen concluded that Oxitec’s technology has the potential to do so, noting that the EPA's approval will allow the company to eventually make the technology available in the US.
But at what cost to Floridians who will be exposed to potentially dangerous GMO mosquitoes?
Dr. Omar Akbari, an assistant professor of entomology at the Center for Disease Vector Research at the University of California, Riverside, explained that tiny mosquitoes are possibly “the most dangerous animals in the world.”
Akbari said that mosquitoes are the primary vectors for major human diseases like dengue fever, malaria and yellow fever. These diseases infect hundreds of millions of people around the globe and kill millions every year.
The World Health Organization (WHO) also reported that over 50 percent of the world’s population is at risk from mosquito-borne diseases. But mosquitoes don't spread diseases themselves.
Mosquitoes bite you to drink your blood and feeding lets mosquitoes produce eggs. When feeding, a mosquito pierces your skin like a needle then injects saliva into your skin. This then lets the disease-causing agent, like the Zika virus, enter your body.