With Zika and dengue fever cases on the rise in Florida, Florida Keys officials are considering all possible options to control the mosquito population in Monroe County — even experimental ones.
The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency published in the Federal Register on Wednesday a notice that it received an application to release of a new type of genetically modified mosquito in the Florida Keys to kill a species known to carry fatal diseases.
Oxitec, a British biotech company that develops GMO mosquitoes to control natural ones, is seeking the experimental-use permit. It says it has developed a “second generation” of Aedes aegypti mosquitoes that mate only with wild females. The females, in turn, would produce only male offspring that survive to adulthood.
Thus, a new generation of Aedes aegypti mosquitoes would not be born, the company says.
The goal is to leave non-targeted insects, such as bees, butterflies and other mosquito species, unharmed, Oxitec officials said.
This proposal is not without controversy. Several Keys activists hope to shut down the proposal, saying GMO mosquitoes pose a threat to the environment.
The public has 30 days to comment on the pilot program.
The EPA will review the comments; it does have a public timeframe on when it will make a decision on the application.
Some in the bug business are open to GMO mosquitoes flying in the Keys.
“For close to 10 years, we have been looking at new technologies to control the Aedes aegypti mosquito,” said Andrea Leal, executive director of the Florida Keys Mosquito Control District. “This is a difficult mosquito to control and, therefore, every possible option must be considered.”
Aedes aegypti mosquitoes are an invasive species and the Keys, with its surrounding water, is a rich home for them. They also carry deadly disease, from yellow fever and dengue to Zika.
In the summer of 2016, Miami-Dade County had an outbreak of the Zika virus, the first time the virus, which pregnant women can pass onto their fetus, causing birth defects and brain damage, hit the United States in significant numbers.
By the end of 2016, more than 5,100 Zika cases had been reported in the United States, up from 62 cases in 2015, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. And while most cases stemmed from travelers carrying the virus from affected areas into the country, 218 cases in Florida and eight cases in Texas developed from local mosquito-borne transmissions, the CDC said.
In 2019, to date, only seven Zika cases have been reported in the United States, all coming from travelers returning from affected areas, the CDC said.
The publication in the Federal Register means the opening of the 30-day public comment period, after which the EPA will review the comments as part of its evaluation of Oxitec’s project.
How to comment on GMO mosquitoes in the Keys
To comment on whether to release GMO mosquitoes in the Keys, click here
You may also mail comments to the Environmental Protection Agency Docket Center, 1200 Pennsylvania Ave. NW, Washington, D.C. 20460-0001. The docket identification number is EPA-HQ-OPP-2019-0274.
Oxitec, which developed another type of genetically modified mosquito last fall, withdrew its application with the EPA to try the technology in the Florida Keys and Harris County, Texas, saying it would return with a new technology.
“We are excited to be joining forces with local government and communities to carry out this new project that will allow us to demonstrate, for the first time on U.S. soil, our proven, safe and environmentally friendly solution,” said Oxitec CEO Grey Frandsen.
Contingent on approval from the EPA, Oxitec expects to start the project in 2020 or 2021, Frandsen said.
Oxitec, along with the Mosquito Control District, originally planned to release its first-generation GMO mosquitoes in the Lower Keys community of Key Haven, about four miles north of Key West.
But, the ballot initiative passed throughout the Keys. The release sites, if the EPA signs off on the project, would be in areas where the referendum received the most votes, Mosquito Control representatives have said.
Oxitec’s application is available on the Mosquito Control website.
You can reach the agency by emailing email@example.com or calling 305-292-7190.