In response, the prestigious journal Science published a news article that took a biting tone as it questioned whether the company had rushed to release its mosquitoes in the Cayman Islands and suggested that the hastiness and off-the-radar style of the experiment had strained Oxitec's ties with funders, including the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. This past January, researchers at Germany's Max Planck Institute published a paper in the journal PLoS Neglected Tropical Diseases implying that Oxitec exploited a weak regulatory environment in the Cayman Islands to do the experiment with minimal oversight and little effort to inform the locals that millions of genetically modified organisms were being let loose in their backyard.

Environmental group Friends of the Earth, one of Oxitech's harsher critics, says the company has not "been open and honest with the local communities about the possible risks its technology pose." Helen Wallace of GeneWatch UK took that sentiment a step further when she said in a statement that Oxitec's Cayman experiment shows that the "British scientific establishment is acting like the last bastion of colonialism, using an overseas territory as a private lab."

In addition to these transparency complaints, opponents fret over a few lab-based studies showing that 3 percent of the Oxitec mosquitoes survived into adulthood despite possessing the self-destruct gene. Oxitec CEO Hadyn Parry tells New Times that this hasn't happened when they're released in the wild, nor is it likely that such mosquitoes can live long enough to transmit diseases. As for Oxitec's opaqueness, Parry says the company never denies an interview and welcomes reporters into its laboratories and has even shared confidential data with activist groups to quell further uproar.

Michael Doyle, executive director of Florida Keys Mosquito Control, in front of one of the four helicopters used to wage aerial assaults on mosquitoes.
Chris Sweeney
Michael Doyle, executive director of Florida Keys Mosquito Control, in front of one of the four helicopters used to wage aerial assaults on mosquitoes.
Aedes aegypti mosquitoes are the only species in the South Florida capable of spreading dengue fever.
Courtesy of Oxitec
Aedes aegypti mosquitoes are the only species in the South Florida capable of spreading dengue fever.

According to Parry, the Cayman experiment worked well. He says the wild Aedes aegypti population plummeted by 80 percent after the Oxitec mosquitoes were released. Final data from the experiment have not been published in a journal. Parry says they are undergoing the peer review process for potential publication in Nature Biotechnology later this year.

Parry insists that the company doesn't have any special interest in doing a release in the Florida Keys; it's Keys Mosquito Control that is pushing for the experiment. "From our point of view, we're working in a number of different places," he says. "We don't have a hit list saying that we'd like to work in this place or that place. If someone is interested and says, 'Hey, can you help us?' we say, 'Yes, of course we can.' "

The Keys is the only area in the U.S. in talks with Oxitec about the use of modified mosquitoes. Even though the Keys are the sole site of locally acquired cases of dengue, some veteran mosquito experts in Florida are surprised that Doyle is picking up his predecessor's plan.

"Given that [Doyle is] brand new to the job, not even a year on, and is looking to take this step... yeah, we were surprised," says Phil Lounibos of the Florida Medical Entomology Laboratory, a Vero Beach-based facility that's part of the University of Florida's Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences. "It's surprising because there is not supporting background evidence that we've seen showing that this will solve the dengue problem."

Still, if the Cayman experiment did reduce Aedes aegypti populations by 80 percent, as Oxitec says, that might not be a great enough reduction to control the spread of dengue. Lounibos points to Singapore, where mosquito control efforts are extensive yet dengue persists. "Many people don't doubt that the Oxitec method can reduce abundance of the mosquito that carries dengue," he says. "But it doesn't necessarily mean that it will control dengue."

Lastly, Lounibos says, Oxitec's mosquitoes are not a "self-sustaining technology," meaning that the Keys may end up making hefty payments to Oxitec to keep a steady stream of modified mosquitoes breeding with whatever population of wild females remains. "They're going to have to keep releasing these things," he says. "They're considering investing in this without knowing if the technology will get the end results."


Doyle has set aside $125,000 to cover the initial overhead of an experiment — converting a trailer into a lab, setting and monitoring traps, and paying for similar expenses. Doyle expects to spend half a million on Oxitec eggs the first full year, with the price dropping by half the second year. For the experiment, Oxitec has agreed to provide him with its mosquitoes for free during the first six months, and with good reason.

A successful test could provide a new customer for the fledgling company. More important, pulling off a release in the Keys would go a long way in removing the stereotype that genetically modified mosquitoes are a creepy, sci-fi solution. A release in the United States is a proverbial golden seal of approval, a mark of acceptance from one of the most stringent, red-taped regulatory bureaucracies in the world. Genetically modified mosquitoes could be pitched as a designer solution to dengue that doesn't need to be dropped from helicopters or dispersed from handheld foggers by uniformed men.

There's just one holdup. Genetically modified mosquitoes are so technologically advanced that no federal agency has claimed to have the jurisdiction to give Oxitec final approval for a release. Doyle likens them to a hover car: If Ford were to suddenly make a flying car available to consumers, would the Federal Aviation Administration, which regulates aircraft, have oversight, or would the Department of Transportation, which regulates roadways? Oxitec's proposal to release its creation has bounced through the USDA, the EPA, and the CDC, all of whom have claimed not to have jurisdiction, Doyle says. Now the FDA is reviewing Oxitec's application for what's called an "investigational new animal drug." Doyle says the FDA's decision could come in a few months or drag on for two years. If the agency ultimately denies the application, Doyle could theoretically release Oxitec mosquitoes anyway because there's no law against it — but he says he wouldn't.

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11 comments
rana7071
rana7071

I completely agree with the above comment, the internet is with a doubt growing into the most important medium of communication across the globe and its due to sites like this that ideas are spreading so quickly. Thank you for the article. I just about passed your blog up in Google but now I'm glad I clicked the link and got to read through it. I'm definitely a little better informed now. I'll be sharing your site with some other people I know. They'll get a kick out of what I just read too.

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Jared Pitcher
Jared Pitcher

DEATH TO THE MOSQUITOS! The Dengue Virus is a Terrorist that invades cells and Hijacks the cell's ribosomes to make copies of itself that will go on to invade/hijack other cells. This Virus has potential to be transfered to a different species including Homo sapiens. www.youtube.com/watch?v=YDRRKA8CJHk .The goal is to stop cell division and PREVENT these creatures from transmitting this horrible Virus to other species. Dengue is Deadly, and Oxitec holds the patent on this amazing tool to lower the population of Aedes aegypti mosquitoes, generation by generation. The FDA is setting an example for the world, and must not disappoint.

FQS9000
FQS9000

It's so scary and I'm so stupid.  A terrible combination.  Let's have a study.  A real big, long and expensive study with lots of Phds and bureaucrats.  I don't care how many people die in the mean time so long as it isn't anybody in my family, then I'll sue the shit out of everybody who might have a dollar. 

Adam Czyrek
Adam Czyrek

Can someone give me an example of previous geo/bio engineering that had greater benefits than the eventual risks? This is a real, almost non-snarky question. On the bad side we have, rabbits in Australia, dams stopping salmon, snakes in Hawaii... Seriously give me one example of relatively harm free bio engineering please. Also, I wonder how far this UK company would get releasing GM mozzies in their home country.. ?

Guest
Guest

There are several cheap, effective and environmentally friendly alternatives to GM mosquitoes.  Native plants that repel Aedes aegypti like American Beautyberry can be used as screening to reduce the House Index.  A study using repellent plants in Tanzania reduced all mosquitoes found in houses by 50%, the cost was $1.50 per house which includes maintenance and labor costs.  This can be used with attractants and lethal ovitraps using used coffee grounds or other cheap environmentally friendly larvicides, as well as fan traps on the lethal ovitraps to not only reduce the larvae survival but also catch the adult females.  This push pull method may not only reduce the larvae from surviving, but unlike GM mosquitoes will also target the adult females and reduce the chance of Aedes aegypti entering the home, and at a fraction of the cost.

Other methods include the use of some strains of the fungi Beauveria bassiana and Metarhizium anisopliae which some peer reviewed studies suggest can also reduce the survival of Aedes aegypti offspring, but unlike GM mosquitoes can also cause mortality in the adult females, thus reducing both the population and the chance of being bit.

Yet another example is use of the bacteria Wolbachia, which some peer reviewed studies suggest may reduce the adult Aedes aegypti lifespan by 50% and unlike GM mosquitoes may actually provide resistance against dengue serotype 2 and chikungunya.  There are several other alternatives as well.

What mosquito control has failed to mention is that releasing millions of GM mosquitoes including thousands of females could potentially increase the risk of transmitting mosquito-borne diseases.  Releasing millions of male mosquitoes may also increase the risk of chikungunya which a peer reviewed study suggested can be spread when Aedes aegypti mate.  With each male mating as many as 21 times in their lifetime that is a huge risk not worth taking unless the adult female lifespan is significantly reduced or there is resistance against chikungunya, which doesn't appear to be the case for GM mosquitoes.  There have been over 100 cases of chikungunya reported in the U.S. between 2006 and 2009 including cases in Florida so this a very real risk.  Florida entomologist Walter J. Tabachnick, estimated that if an outbreak that occurred in Italy had occurred in Key West it would have caused 1,200 cases of chikungunya and 4,000 cases if it occurred during tourist season.  The Beauveria bassiana and Metarhizium anisopliae alternatives both reduce the lifespan of the adult female and therefore reduce the chance of chikungunya spreading, they can also be used without releasing more males but instead infecting the already existing males and/or females.  The Wolbachia alternative may reduce the lifespan of adult female Aedes aegypti and may even provide resistance against chikungunya, so even if more males were released there would be a significantly reduced risk of spreading chikungunya compared to GM mosquitoes.

There are numerous unknows such as whether or not the synthetic protein based on sequences from E.coli and the Herpes simplex virus that the GM mosquitoes express could be transmitted to humans during a bite or affect animals ingesting them.  As well as a partially independent lab reporting 15% of the GM mosquito offspring surviving in the presence of chicken found in cat food and a member of the mosquito control district admitting that Aedes aegypti have been found breeding in pet dishes, making such an event likely if GM mosquitoes are released.  Along with Florida Medical Entomology Laboratory's Phil Lounibos stating there is no supporting background evidence that GM mosquitoes would solve a dengue problem.  All of this and more makes a GM mosquito release seem like an expensive, pointless and potentially risky proposal.

CALZONE
CALZONE

Hey Nutbag scientists! S-T-O-P F$@#ng with mother nature! YOU are killing us (WE THE PEOPLE) with your Quack science

Bill
Bill

Mosquito Control does not even have permits for aerial spraying of pesticides.  Check that fact.  They are irresponsible and ignorant.  I don't trust them for a minute, and I don't trust their plan for releasing genetically modified Mosquitoes.

The new Middle Class Party
The new Middle Class Party

paranoid? Do they require a permit? Perhaps you would like the mosquitoes back and render South Florida uninhabitable? Did you get a permit to post this comment?

 
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