Plans to study the effectiveness of genetically modified male mosquitos as a form of mosquito control in the Florida Keys have received federal and state government approval, as well as approval from local officials in Monroe County.
Beginning in 2021, the Florida Keys Mosquito Control District and U.K.-based Oxitec Corporation are planning to conduct a small pilot project using genetically modified male mosquitos to help control Aedes aegypti mosquitos.
Some basic facts:
Aedes aegypti mosquitos are non-native to the United States. They are a nuisance and have the potential to spread vector illnesses such as chikungunya, dengue fever or Zika.
The current methods of mosquito control in the Florida Keys utilize integrated pest management, which is a combination of source reduction coupled with aerial and ground spraying of various insecticide and larvicide products. However, over time some of these products are becoming less effective at controlling Aedes aegypti mosquitos.
With that in mind, FKMCD is actively seeking new tools and technologies that can effectively reduce mosquito populations, specifically Aedes aegypti, now and into the future.
Oxitec-bred mosquitos are intended to be one of these tools with the potential to thwart mosquito-borne diseases while helping neutralize insecticide resistance.
How does the program work?
FKMCD is collaborating with Oxitec, a biotech company, on a field trial to control Aedes aegypti mosquitos in a sustainable, environmentally responsible and potentially more cost-effective way. Oxitec scientists have engineered a strain of the male Aedes aegypti mosquito that targets itself to help control the species.
Oxitec releases male mosquitos because males cannot bite or spread disease. Those genetically modified male mosquitos are released to do all the hard work of finding wild, unmodified females to mate with. Only the male subsequent offspring survive, resulting in reduced local populations of Aedes aegypti after successive releases, according to Oxitec.
When and where will it start?
The Oxitec proposal for a Keys-based U.S. trial has received unanimous approval from U.S.-based agencies including the U.S. Centers for Disease Control, Environmental Protection Agency, Florida Department of Environmental Protection, Florida Department of Health and Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission among others.
Although the pilot project is planned for 2021, it is not yet known exactly when or where in the Florida Keys the trial will begin.
What is the potential for success of the program?
In the Cayman Islands, Mexico and Brazil, where the technology has been used successfully, the local Aedes aegypti mosquito population was reduced by up to 95 percent, according to Oxitec. Other sites’ results have not been as positive.
Will Oxitec mosquitoes harm birds, bees, bats, fish, turtles or other wildlife?
The EPA and Florida environmental agencies have confirmed Oxitec’s research to indicate no adverse effects. The male mosquitos present no risk to human health, and no risk to the environment, including endangered or threatened species or their critical habitats, according to Oxitec.
Oxitec and FKMCD claim the technology is self-limiting, so once released, mosquitoes and their offspring die; they do not linger in the environment for an extended period, Oxitec officials said, adding that the suppression effect is specifically targeted to this species of mosquito, leaving non-target species such as bees and butterflies unharmed. Passionate opponents of genetic modification do not agree and believe there is a risk to other species, though that has not been confirmed.
Oxitec and FKMCD are to evaluate release rates and demonstrate effectiveness of the modified mosquitos in small areas. Both Oxitec and FKMCD said that releases can be stopped at any time, and once they are, officials claim that the modified mosquitos will soon die off and no longer have an effect on other mosquitos or the environment.