Sometime this year, somewhere in the Florida Keys, a British biotech company is expected to release millions of genetically modified male mosquitoes in an effort to breed out of existence an invasive species of bug responsible for the transmittal of deadly diseases like dengue fever, chikungunya and Zika.
But, the pilot project remains controversial, and a large segment of people who live in the island chain are trying to stop it. About two dozen people gathered Sunday morning outside the Murray Nelson Government and Cultural Arts Center in Key Largo to protest the planned release of the lab-designed bugs.
“They have failed in the Caymans. We have proof of that. They have failed in Brazil. We have proof of that. They have failed in India, in Malaysia, in Panama. We have proof of that,” said Meagan Hull, from Sugarloaf Key, one of the protesters.
The company, Oxitec, plans to place boxes full of millions of genetically altered male eggs throughout the trial areas. Water will be added, and the male bugs will fly among the local population of Aedes aegypti mosquitoes and mate with the females.
A “death mechanism” designed into mosquitoes is meant to ensure no viable female offspring will result from the mating, according to Oxitec. The male offspring will pass on the “self-limiting gene” to half of their offspring, said company spokesman Ross Bethell.
After a period of time, Oxitec says the local Aedes aegypti population will either be eradicated or greatly reduced.
Of the more than 3,000 types of mosquitoes, the Aedes aegytpi is the mosquito that spreads Zika, dengue, chikungunya, yellow fever and other viruses.
EPA, state agency approve Oxitec plan
The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency last year approved Oxitec to move forward with the project in Florida through 2022. The Florida Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services approved the Keys trial in June.
The Florida Keys Mosquito Control District’s five-member elected board approved the trial for the archipelago in August with a 4-1 vote, with the majority of board members saying conventional methods of targeting Aedes aegypti were progressively becoming less effective.
Results of the company’s efforts in other countries depend on whom you ask. Oxitec says its efforts in Brazil have been a success. It noted in a press release last May that the Brazilian government approved Oxitec’s technology for use within the country after “an in-depth and rigorous scientific review process.”
In the Cayman Islands, the company conducted four trials with an older technology that it said achieved a reduction rate of targeted Aedes aegypti mosquitoes of between 62 and 96%.
However, those figures may have been inflated, and emails obtained by an activist group revealed that the majority of one government paper that touted a 62% suppression rate was written by Oxitec.
“They got kicked out of every country they’ve been in except Brazil, and they just keep relocating in Brazil,” said Mara Daly, a Key Largo resident who’s been battling to stop Oxitec from releasing its mosquitoes in the Keys for about 10 years.
Bethell said Oxitec has not been kicked out of any of the countries in which it has conducted trials, and has not been forced to relocate in Brazil.
Critics also point to a paper published in Nature and Scientific Reports in September 2019 that reported a similar Oxitec trial in Jacobina, Bahia, Brazil between 2013 and 2015 resulted in the creation of a mutant hybrid strain of Aedes aegytpi in the area of the release.
However, Meredith Fensom, head of global public affairs for Oxitec, noted that the publishers of Nature and Scientific Reports ended up issuing an “Editorial Expression of Concern” and attaching it to the paper taking issue with several of the authors’ findings.
“The paper’s authors made speculative statements and ignored a body of critical peer-reviewed evidence, including their own, that demonstrated safety and effectiveness of the technology,” Fensom said in an email Monday. “Oxitec’s OX513A self-limiting genes were tested for over a decade and have been demonstrated to disappear from the environment; their natural background genes also decline over time. Data in this paper and other scientific literature confirm that there is no hybrid vigor or selective mating observed.”
However, many in the Keys are not convinced.
“We have lots to lose and very little to gain by being part of this experiment,” said John Timura, an Islamorada business owner and fisherman.
Key Haven residents balk at mosquitoes’ release
Timura pointed to a 2016 non-binding referendum asking if Keys residents supported releasing the GM bugs. It passed in the county, but not among residents of Key Haven, the small community near Key West where the company planned to hold the trial at the time.
“We overwhelmingly voted no. The way they went about this is wrong,” Timura said.
Oxitec to announce Keys site for mosquito release
The Keys mosquito control district this week announced that about 130 boxes will be placed at various places from mile markers 10 to 93 for a duration of 28 weeks. The project could begin by April, the district said.
Barry Wray, executive director of a local conservation group, the Florida Keys Environmental Coalition, said Oxitec took advantage of changes the Trump administration made within the EPA in terms of the regulation process to get the agency to approve the project.
“And, we know that that administration really employed a lot of people who were not into the science, but more into the corporate side of things,” Wray said. “So, we’re dealing with a technology that never went through the scientific rigor it was supposed to so we could understand the risks, mitigate them, or determine if they’re unacceptable.”
Bethell said none of the EPA employees who reviewed Oxitec’s application were political appointees, but rather staff scientists.
“The assertion of political interference in the scientific review process is wrong,” Bethell said. “The details of the scientific risk assessment process, which took 14 months and involved the review of over 4,000 pages of data and scientific publications, have all been published by EPA, and links to these documents are available on Oxitec’s website.”
John Moreno, of Tavernier, said he fears the experiment can have irreversible unintended consequences.
“The thing is, it’s a trial. So, after they release these millions of mosquitoes, let’s say the trial fails. How are they going to get them? There’s no way they’re going to hand pick all the millions of mosquitoes they just released. So, then they’re just out here in our environment and we’re going to have to suffer the consequences,” Moreno said.
Kim Sikora of Key Largo has similar concerns.
“Genetically modified larvae is going to hatch, and once they’re out there, there’s no recalling them. Once the genie’s out of the bottle, it’s too late,” she said.
Isabelle Wogsland, an 11-year-old budding environmentalist from Key Largo, held a sign that read, “No Environmental Studies!” She explained that her sign was a warning that the trial could end up causing a chain reaction of environmental damages because, in her opinion, the technology hasn’t been thoroughly researched.
“My sign is about how they didn’t do any research about it. And, they didn’t do any environmental studies. So, these are some of the animals that eat the mosquitoes,” Wogsland said.
“And, if they do eat the mosquitoes, they might get poisoned, but we don’t know because they didn’t do any research on it. And, Key Largo is a big fishing community, so if the fish get poisoned, then there’s less fish and less fishing. It has a big impact. But we don’t know because they didn’t do any research.”