Feds approve controversial plan to release genetically modified mosquitoes to fight Zika

As the Zika virus continues its spread in Florida, federal officials on Friday approved a plan to release millions of mutant mosquitoes there in hopes of suppressing the disease-carrying insect’s population.

The Food and Drug Administration has issued its final environmental assessment of the plan, saying that the proposed field trial in Key Haven, a suburb of Key West, “will not have significant impacts on the environment.”

Now it’s up to the people who live there to vote in November on whether the trial can move forward.

The project was proposed by the British biotech company Oxitec and has been under review since 2011, well before Zika virus exploded throughout South America, up through Mexico and Puerto Rico and into Florida. But the decision came just days after the first local transmissions by mosquitoes were confirmed in the U.S., in Miami-Dade and Broward counties.

“We read the newspapers, we see the disease coming, and I think that’s added a little bit of urgency and prioritization to that work,” Hadyn Parry, CEO of Oxitec, told the Tampa Bay Times.

Parry’s company has been genetically modifying millions of Aedes aegypti mosquitoes in a lab with a synthetic protein that kills their offspring before they can emerge from larvae as adults and transmit the Zika virus or other diseases such as Dengue.

If wild female mosquitoes mate with sterile males, the population dies off rapidly.

Oxitec has already released millions of them in Brazil, Panama and the Cayman Islands. The results have been significant: They have reduced some local mosquito populations by more than 90 percent.

“I know a lot of people are scared of them because they’re genetically modified,” Sadie Ryan, a medical geographer at the University of Florida who is not affiliated with Oxitec, said in an interview with PBS NewsHour Weekend. “I think it’s a good idea.”

Ryan said that an island is ideal for a trial because Aedes aegypti mosquitoes do not travel very far during their lifetimes.

“You have to drown out the local population wherever you are, that’s why islands are a great place to do it,” she said.

PBS NewsHour Weekend reported in May, 2015, that people who live in the Key West are divided. While some see the potential benefits of eradicating the mosquito that poses a threat to them, others worry about the unknown.

Even if Floridians do vote to allow Oxitec to release the genetically modified mosquitoes there, Ryan said it would be more difficult to try it in a bigger metropolitan area like Miami because there are no clear boundaries.

Zika is also a sexually transmitted disease, and people from all over the world travel through Miami, so it may be difficult to contain the species or the virus, she said.

“It doesn’t mean we shouldn’t try,” she said.