A plan to release thousands of genetically modified mosquitoes in an effort to combat disease in the Florida Keys has triggered dire concerns among locals, some saying the “criminal” experiment will turn them into guinea pigs.
Spearheaded by the Florida Keys Mosquito Control District (FKMCD) and Oxitec, a British biotech firm that’s received backing from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, the project aims to turn the first swarms of gene-edited bugs loose into the Keys starting sometime this week, the two bodies announced in a joint statement.
For the first leg of the plan, set to be expanded later, mosquito boxes will be placed at six locations, which over 12 weeks will release around 144,000 Aedes aegypti mosquitoes, a species most closely linked with transmitting illnesses such as dengue, Zika and yellow fever. If all goes according to plan, the male, non-biting bugs will mate with local biting females, whose female offspring are programmed to die off, helping to control the Aedes aegypti population and reduce the spread of disease.
While the particular species makes up only about 4% of the overall population in the Keys, it is behind “virtually all” mosquito-borne diseases passed to humans, as well as some that are transmitted to animals, such as heartworm, according to Oxitec.
Approved by the Environmental Protection Agency last May under an Experimental Use Permit, the project also seeks to cut down on the use of chemical pesticides, which can be harmful to local wildlife. However, while Oxitec presented that as a major perk in selling the plan to local leaders, the mosquito control board has so far given no indication of any plans to reduce pesticide usage.