The Release of GMO Creatures Into the Wild
Mosquitoes have been described as the world’s deadliest animals. More aptly, this applies to female mosquitoes, which are the ones that bite humans. While male mosquitoes survive quite well by feeding off of flower nectar, females require meals of blood in order to develop and lay eggs.
The problem is when a female mosquito pierces your skin with her proboscis: it’s similar to inserting a hypodermic needle. Some of her saliva gets injected into your body as she feeds, along with any diseases she may be carrying.
Malaria, yellow fever, dengue, encephalitis, chikungunya, and West Nile virus are all transmitted by mosquitoes. So, too, is Lyme disease and the latest public health “emergency,” Zika virus.
There’s no debating that mosquitoes can indeed be deadly. Humans have been waging war against them since ancient times, when Egyptians began sleeping under nets to avoid their bites. Later, Native Americans are said to have applied mud to their skin and used plants to repel the insects.1
Chemicals became the modern weapon of choice; a variety of insecticides, including DDT, have been (and continue to be) used to kill mosquitoes, but at a considerable price — widespread exposure to these toxic chemicals.
Genetic engineering is the latest player in the battle against mosquitoes. Biotech company Oxitec, the genetically engineered (GE) mosquitoes’ creator, has even spun them as a “non-chemical insecticide.”2 Now, these controversial creatures are one step closer to being released on U.S. soil.
US Health Regulators Say GE Mosquitoes Are Safe
The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has agreed with an environmental assessment submitted by Oxitec3 and stated that GE mosquitoes will not have a significant impact on the environment. Technically, this is referred to as a “finding of no significant impact” (FONSI).4
The FDA’s report is preliminary but brings the GE mosquitoes one step closer to being released in Florida.
If approved, Oxitec, in partnership with the Florida Keys Mosquito Control District (FKMCD), plans to release the GE mosquitoes, which go by the name of OX513A, in Key Haven, Florida, an island of the Florida Keys located about 1 mile east of Key West.
The mosquitoes have been genetically engineered to carry a “genetic kill switch,” such that when they mate with wild female mosquitoes, their offspring inherits the lethal gene and cannot survive.5
To achieve this feat, Oxitec has inserted protein fragments from the herpes virus, E. coli bacteria, coral and cabbage looper moth into the insects. The GE mosquitoes have proven lethal to native mosquito populations.
In the Cayman Islands, for instance, 96 percent of native mosquitoes were suppressed after more than 3 million GE mosquitoes were released in the area, with similar results reported in Brazil.6
GE Mosquitoes Are Intended to Fight Diseases That Pose Little Threat in Florida
By drastically reducing native Aedes aegypti mosquitoes, the GE Aedes aegypti mosquitoes could theoretically stop the spread of mosquito-related tropical diseases like chikungunya and dengue, along with Zika virus.7
The curious part about this is that these diseases pose little risk in Florida. No confirmed dengue fever cases have been seen in Key West since November 2010.
And while there have been limited reports of people with Zika virus living in mainland Florida, the cases were contracted in South America or the Caribbean. As reported by The Monroe County Tourist Development Council:8
“Dengue fever, chikungunya and Zika viruses are currently not a health threat in the Florida Keys including Key West …
There has never been a report of a locally acquired case of chikungunya or Zika anywhere in the Florida Keys, according to officials at the Florida Department of Health in Monroe County.”
At a town hall meeting on the topic of releasing GE mosquitoes in the Florida Keys, concerned residents asked some important questions, including who will be footing the bill for their release. A member of FKMCD noted that Oxitec is paying, at least for the experimental release.
Ultimately, if the GE mosquitoes become approved, they could be sought by governments worldwide, making them a major profit center. The Gates Foundation has already spent at least $20 million to fund their development, and the World Health Organization (WHO) is on board too.
In a review of five potential weapons against Aedes mosquitoes, WHO concluded GE mosquitoes “warrant time-limited pilot deployment, accompanied by rigorous monitoring and evaluation.”9 According to a WHO statement:10,11
“Given the magnitude of the Zika crisis, WHO encourages affected countries and their partners to boost the use of both old and new approaches to mosquito control as the most immediate line of defense.
… For genetically modified mosquitoes, the WHO Advisory Group has recommended further field trials and risk assessment to evaluate the impact of this new tool on disease transmission.”
WHO also gave a proverbial nod to releasing male mosquitoes carrying Wolbachia bacteria. When the infected mosquitoes mate, the females’ eggs are unable to hatch.
Releasing GE mosquitoes into the environment means local residents are acting as guinea pigs in Oxitec’s experiment whether they like it or not. Such an issue should be put up for a vote so the residents can at least have a voice in the matter.
But as you can see in the video above of the Florida Keys town hall meeting, officials give residents the run around when they ask the simple question of why GE mosquitoes aren’t on the ballot.
The officials show the results of a professional face-to-face survey conducted in 2013 to gauge the public’s opinion of GE mosquitoes. The survey showed the general public was opposed to the idea, but the officials state that residents are more informed now than they were then.
Then Chris Creese, Ph.D., Oxitec communications manager, added the point that you don’t need to vote when the government decides to build roads (likening this to releasing GE mosquitoes into the wild), which was met by “boos” from the residents in attendance.
Red Flags Have Already Been Raised
As we’ve seen in the past with genetically modified organisms (GMOs), when you tinker with nature, it often comes back to bite you. There are several glaring problems with assuming these GE mosquitoes are safe for the human population.12 For starters:
- The potential exists for these genes, which hop from one place to another, toinfect human blood by finding entry through skin lesions or inhaled dust. Such transmission could potentially wreak havoc with the human genome by creating “insertion mutations” and other unpredictable types of DNA damage.13
- Accordingto Alfred Handler, Ph.D., a geneticist at the Agriculture Department in Hawaii,mosquitoes can develop resistance to the lethal gene and might then bereleased inadvertently. Todd Shelly, an entomologist for the Agriculture Department in Hawaii, said 3.5 percent of the insects in a laboratory test survived to adulthood, despite presumably carrying the lethal gene.14
- Tetracyclineand other antibiotics are now showing up in the environment, in soil andsurface water samples. These GE mosquitoes were designed to die in theabsence of tetracycline (which is introduced in the lab in order to keepthem alive long enough to breed).
They were designed this way assuming they would NOT have access to that drug in the wild. With tetracycline exposure (for example, in a lake) these mutant insects could actually thrive in the wild.
Public Comment Period on GE Mosquitoes in Florida Ends April 13
The plans to release GE mosquitoes in Florida are receiving renewed attention and vigor because of Zika virus. But as I wrote in February, the evidence suggests implicating Zika virus in rising rates of microcephaly in Brazil may be a matter of convenience.
Leaders of the public-private partnership between industry and government may be quickly blaming the rise in microcephaly on disease-carrying mosquitoes in order to sell more GE mosquitoes, to sell more toxic insecticides, and to have an excuse to develop and sell more vaccines. A key point to remember is that once GE organisms are released, there’s no going back. Even with all the fail-safes in place, nature has a way of surprising us.
It’s happened many times before with GE plants that, contrary to officials’ assurances, escape their test plots and contaminate the environment, and it’s sure to happen again (especially as more mobile GE insects and salmon are released).
Also of note is the fact that the diseases the GE mosquitoes are intended to prevent don’t need to be prevented in Florida; they’re already nonexistent or close to it. And this isn’t going to stop with mosquitoes, either. Oxitec is currently field testing a GE version of the diamondback moth, a known agricultural pest, especially for crops like cabbage, broccoli and cauliflower.
The GE moths have already been laboratory tested in the U.K. and “caged” field trials took place the summer of 2015 in New York. During those trials, the moths were released outdoors in a contained area. Further trials are planned for spring 2016 with open field trials potentially coming in the summer.
Let Your Voice Be Heard
The FDA is accepting public comments on their preliminary FONSI for Oxitec’s GE mosquitoes for 30 days. The public comment period ends April 1
3, 2016. If you’d like to share your opinion about the release of GE mosquitoes in the Florida Keys and have a voice in federal decision-making, you can make your comments at Regulations.gov.
A Change.org petition is also calling for the FDA to reject the release of GE mosquitoes in the Florida Keys. You can sign the petition now to voice your support.
Finally, if you live in the Florida Keys area, please voice your concerns directly to the Florida Keys Mosquito Control District. You can reach their Key West office by calling (305-292-7190) or submitting a comment online. You can also submit your concerns directly to officials of Monroe County, Florida. You can find your local Monroe County commission member here.
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