Oxitec hopeful for GM mosquito release this year

There hasn’t been much talk of releasing genetically modified mosquitoes in the Florida Keys for a while, but a trial could happen in the coming months.

British biotech company Oxitec wants to release its genetically modified mosquitoes in the Florida Keys this year, calling them “Oxitec Friendly mosquitoes,” the offspring of which it says die almost immediately.

According to its website, Oxitec’s male mosquitoes are reared with a self-limiting gene, so when the males are released into the wild to mate with females, that gene is passed on and the offspring never survive to adulthood. This results in a smaller population of Aedes aegypti bugs, officials say, which carry Zika and other viruses.

The trial needs approval from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency for a release of bugs in the Keys. There was approval in 2016 from the U.S. Food and Drug Administration for a trial in Key Haven, but it was delayed several times and never happened there after strong voter opposition.

Tuesday, Key West physician Dr. John Norris approached the Florida Keys Mosquito Control Board about the potential release of Oxitec’s bugs. The mosquitoes are genetically engineered to need the antibiotic tetracycline to survive.

That’s a concern for Norris and a group of doctors because of bacteria that may be riding on the backs of the mosquitoes, seeing as how bacteria develop resistance to antibiotics after exposure to too much or too little. The surviving bacteria can become even more powerful and resistant to medicine down the road.

Norris told commissioners he visited with officials in the Cayman Islands where Oxitec started releases in summer 2016. He wants data about antibiotic resistance seen in people living in the trial site. He also wants to culture the to-be-released bugs to see what kind of bacteria is on them.

“These insects are designed to get into people’s houses and cause the extinction of whatever Aedes live there, but the bacteria they leave behind is left to breed because it has no death chain,” he said.

In the Caymans, there has been a 62 percent suppression rate of the virus-carrying mosquitoes, according to data provided by officials there. About 400,000 bugs are released there weekly.

“No physician is going to stand in front of you and speak negatively against the GMs, but we care about how ya’ make the soup,” Norris told commissioners. “There was a real mistake made, in my humble opinion, when they used an antibiotic as the maturation factor to an organism designed to get into people’s houses and deposit whatever else was along for the ride.”

Oxitec submitted a new application with the EPA in December and the EPA now has seven months to make a decision on whether it will issue an experimental-use permit.

A sample of the bugs has not been released to Norris and the doctors. Derric Nimmo, product development manager for Oxitec, said Friday “We are not in a position to make the insects available outside appropriate protocols.”

A workshop to hear from both sides of the GM debate will happen on Feb. 20 at Mosquito Control's building at 503 107th St., Marathon. The time has not yet been determined.

Katie Atkins: 305-440-3219