The British biotech company – Oxitec – didn’t successfully launch its genetically engineered mosquitoes in Key Haven, Florida late last year. So, much like the altered mosquitoes they want to spread in the U.S., the company is buzzing to find another way in.
Harris County, Texas, officials are in negotiations with Oxitec about releasing genetically modified mosquitoes in Houston under the banner of pre-emptively fighting Zika virus, said to be carried by Aedes aegypti mosquitoes. Oxitec has created a breed of mosquitoes that will mate with native mosquitoes to produce offspring that die.
Similar to the Key Haven suburb, there have been no cases of Zika transmission in Houston. There was a reported case of the disease on the U.S./Mexican border. In Key Haven, there were no cases of the other diseases – like dengue – that Oxitec used as an urgent example for the need to go ahead and release the GE insects. The Food and Drug Administration, however, gave approval to the proposed field trial in Key Haven last August, but it was shot down by residents’ votes.
Oxitec did conduct a trial just off the coast of the U.S. but has yet to truly release them within U.S. borders.
Oxitec also conducted field trials in Brazil, Panama and the Cayman Islands. The company boasts that it has reduced the Aedes mosquito populations by up to 90 percent each time. One has to wonder what the ecological impact is for other animals, like bats and frogs, who may actually be losing most of their food supply. Another thing to consider is that the newly mutated offspring can actually survive maturity if they are antidoted with the antibiotic tetracycline. However, that is a common agricultural spray – no prizes for guessing the future implications.
Mustapha Debboun, director of the Harris County Mosquito Control Division, considers the engineered breed “another tool” in the fight against Zika and other mosquito-borne illnesses. An Oxitec scientist said, “the release of mosquitoes to control mosquitoes” is an important change in approach – probably because he was hired by Oxitec. AP News is quick to point out that this mosquito carries deadly illnesses like dengue, chikungunya, Zika and more although none of them have besieged or killed anyone in the city. The original story by The Houston Chronicle uses the headline “Before Zika Strikes, county considers mutant mosquitoes” – as though Zika is as certain as a storm front about to roll in.
Oxitec needs only to submit an environmental assessment to the FDA as a final step before conducting a field trial in Harris County.
It is all wrapped up to get you to accept an idea that isn’t truly tested – like most genetically engineered products – just as it was when the previous threat was dengue and chikungunya – both of which never materialized. It would seem wholly irrational to the average person were it not wrapped up in an urgent threat.
Is this what people want? While some people install firewalls to keep computer viruses out or may fantasize about a national wall to keep other people out – there is no wall to keep GE mosquitoes out once they are released. If something goes wrong – and we have already explained how – it can change the entire world’s ecology long after Oxitec has to face any consequences for their venture.