Millions of Genetically Modified Mosquitoes Could Be Released in Florida

Genetically Modified Mosquitoes

Story at-a-glance -

  • Biotech company Oxitec and the Florida Keys Mosquito Control District (FKMCD) are moving forward to introduce genetically modified (GM) mosquitoes to the area in an attempt to stop the spread of two tropical diseases
  • FKMCD states that “Dengue fever and chikungunya are currently not an active health threat in the Florida Keys”
  • The GM mosquitoes contain protein fragments from the herpes virus, E. coli bacteria, coral, and cabbage

By Dr. Mercola

Chikungunya and dengue are tropical diseases spread by Aedes mosquitoes. Infection with the chikungunya virus leads to fever and joint pain that can be severe, although it rarely causes death.

Chikungunya occurs regularly in Africa, Asia, and India, and in 2013 it was first detected in the Caribbean. In 2014, there were just over 2,300 cases of chikungunya reported in the US.

However, only 11 individuals actually contracted the disease in the US (in Florida). All the others were cases that occurred in travelers returning from other affected areas in the Caribbean or Pacific Islands.1

Symptoms of infection with dengue virus are slightly different – high fever, severe headache, and pain in the eyes, joints, muscles, and bones are common. In severe cases, dengue may progress into dengue hemorrhagic fever, which causes vomiting abdominal pain, bleeding, and trouble breathing, and may be deadly.

It’s estimated that more than 100 million cases of dengue occur worldwide each year,2 including in Puerto Rico, Latin America, Southeast Asia, and the Pacific Islands. However, according to the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), “dengue rarely occurs in the continental United States.”3

While, theoretically, both chikungunya and dengue could spread throughout the US, particularly in tropical and Southern states, this hasn’t happened yet. We’ve seen only a handful of locally transmitted cases…

GM Mosquitoes May Be Released in the Florida Keys in 2015

Unfortunately, biotech company Oxitec and the Florida Keys Mosquito Control District (FKMCD) are moving forward on their plan to introduce genetically modified (GM) mosquitoes to the area in an attempt to stop the spread of these tropical diseases.

Ironically, FKMCD states flat out: “Dengue fever and chikungunya are currently not an active health threat in the Florida Keys.”4 Yet, they’re apparently willing to risk the unknown consequences of releasing a GM species into the wild anyway.

The plan is currently being reviewed by the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA). If it is approved, GM male mosquitoes would be released into the Florida Keys up to three times a week, starting sometime in 2015.

The Oxitec mosquitoes are unlike any that exist in nature. They’ve been genetically altered to carry a “genetic kill switch,” such that when they mate with wild female mosquitoes, their offspring inherits the lethal gene and cannot survive.5

To achieve this feat, Oxitec has inserted protein fragments from the herpes virus, E. coli bacteria, coral, and cabbage into the insects, dubbed as OX513A. The GM mosquitoes have proven lethal to native mosquito populations.

In the Cayman Islands, for instance, 96 percent of native mosquitoes were suppressed after more than 3 million GM mosquitoes were released in the area, with similar results reported in Brazil.6 But as we’ve seen in the past with genetically modified organisms (GMOs), when you tinker with nature, it often comes back to bite you.

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Problems with GM Mosquitoes

One of the first questions that comes to mind is, what happens if one of the GM mosquitoes bites you? Will their GM DNA be injected into your arm or leg? Oxitec has counteracted this objection by stating they only plan to release male mosquitoes, which don’t bite.

This again sounds good in theory… but in reality, sorting millions of insects according to sex is no small feat. And even FKMCD notes that although “every effort is made to release only males,” Oxitec trials show that .03 percent of the mosquitoes released are female.7

So it’s not only males being released. If 3 million mosquitoes are released, as they were in the Caymans, data from Oxitec trials suggest about 900 of them will be female – and capable of biting. Even so, FKMCD states “there’s no difference between the bite of an Oxitec female and a wild one.”

It’s unclear on what research they are basing this assumption. The AP reported that Oxitec has released 70 million GM mosquitoes thus far, with no reports of “human impacts caused by bites or from the synthetic DNA.”8  What the heck does that mean? Who would even know to report or where?

Also, the mosquitoes haven’t been around long enough to assume there will be no impacts. There are several glaring problems with assuming these GM bugs are safe for the human population.9 For starters:

  1. The potential exists for these genes, which hop from one place to another, to infect human blood by finding entry through skin lesions or inhaled dust. Such transmission could potentially wreak havoc with the human genome by creating "insertion mutations" and other unpredictable types of DNA damage.10
  2. According to Alfred Handler, a geneticist at the Agriculture Department in Hawaii, mosquitoes can develop resistance to the lethal gene and might then be released inadvertently.
  3. Todd Shelly, an entomologist for the Agriculture Department in Hawaii, said 3.5 percent of the insects in a laboratory test survived to adulthood, despite presumably carrying the lethal gene.11

  4. Tetracycline and other antibiotics are now showing up in the environment, in soil and surface water samples. These GM mosquitoes were designed to die in the absence of tetracycline (which is introduced in the lab in order to keep them alive long enough to breed).

They were designed this way assuming they would NOT have access to that drug in the wild. With tetracycline exposure (for example, in a lake) these mutant insects could actually thrive in the wild, potentially creating a nightmarish scenario.

Florida Keys Residents Slated to Become the Next Guinea Pigs

Many residents of the Florida Keys are understandably upset. They’re slated to become the next guinea pigs in this human experiment. Residents and tourists in the Cayman Islands know that feeling all too well.

In 2009, Oxitec released their GM bugs onto Grand Cayman Island in the Caribbean. The experiment will go down in scientific history as the first release of GM insects that could bite humans. Not surprisingly, it was conducted in secret.

Once the locals got wind of this, they responded with a fair amount of public outrage—and rightly so! But it didn't stop there. Oxitec subsequently released their frankenskeeters in Malaysia, Brazil, Panama, India, Singapore, Thailand, and Vietnam. The Institute for Science in Society (ISIS) wrote at the time of the Cayman Island release:12

“ …the current release of terminator male mosquitoes on Cayman Island is a risky strategy. To add insult on injury, there has been no warnings issued to tourists, and most residents on the Island do not appear to have given informed consent to be exposed to the GM male mosquitoes, in blatant violation of human rights with regard to human experimentation.

If the strategy has succeeded, as claimed, the islanders may have been granted temporary respite from the insect vector for Dengue; though replacement mosquito vectors are likely to be blown in from neighboring islands almost immediately while GM mosquitoes are spreading to them from Cayman Island.

The UK government appears not to have exercised appropriate jurisdiction over the human experimentation in its territory; while the scientific community should condemn the use of data to justify the experiment from studies that had not passed peer review.”

Too Late: GM Insects Released Before Their Full Consequences Are Understood

If you’re surprised to learn that GM mosquitoes have already been released into the wild, you might be shocked to know that Oxitec is also the creator of genetically modified pink bollworm moths, and swarms of this creature have already been unleashed over the fields of Arizona in an effort to overtake natural bollworm populations, which are a pest.

In addition, Oxitec has created a genetically engineered diamond-back or cabbage moth, while other groups are also developing GM insects. One group has created Anopheles mosquitoes that are immune to the malaria parasite they normally carry, and also manufacturing male Anopheles that lack sperm.  

It may sound exciting – a way to control pests without pesticides and stop the spread of deadly diseases! – but this is uncharted territory. At present, the use of GM insects is in its infancy. Not only are there no precedents from which to draw potential ecological consequences, but proper risk assessments have not been done – and quite possibly might be impossible to conduct, considering the many unknown aspects of tinkering with DNA and allowing it to mingle with other species. In a study published in Ecology and Evolution, researchers attempted to identify potential ecological effects of GM insects, and revealed many along with important knowledge gaps.

They wrote:13

The effects may occur in two phases: a transitory phase when the focal population changes in density, and a steady state phase when it reaches a new, constant density… Our methodology reveals many potential effects in each phase, perhaps most notably those dealing with immunity in the transitory phase, and with pathogen and vector evolution in the steady state phase. Importantly, this framework identifies knowledge gaps in mosquito ecology.

For instance, in evaluating GE mosquitoes, the knowledge gaps in mosquito ecology are striking… particularly with respect to mosquito effects on consumer and resource species. Data and theory on ecological hysteresis in insect communities are also lacking, which makes it difficult to assess whether any changes are irreversible.”

Sign the Petition to Keep GM Mosquitoes Out of the Florida Keys

There are far more questions than answers surrounding GM insects at this time, and the FDA should not allow this type of reckless experimentation to take place. As a petition explains:14

“Nearly all experiments with genetically-modified crops have eventually resulted in unintended consequences: superweeds more resistant to herbicides, mutated and resistant insects also collateral damage to ecosystems. A recent news story reported that the monarch butterfly population is down by half in areas where Roundup Ready GM crops are doused with ultra-high levels of herbicides that wipe out the monarch's favorite milkweed plant.

What about our native species of Florida Keys Bats. Are there any studies being conducted to see if these mosquitoes will harm the native bat population? Why would we not expect GM (genetically modified) insects, especially those that bite humans, to have similar unintended negative consequences? Will the more virulent Asian tiger mosquito that also carries dengue fill the void left by reductions in A. aegypti? Will the dengue virus mutate (think antibiotic resistant MRSA) and become even more dangerous?”

We’re already seeing the unintended consequences of GM crops popping up… “super weeds” and increasingly resistant pests are rapidly spreading and wreaking havoc across American farmland, while the human health concerns keep mounting. When scientists take genetic modification even further, tinkering with genes in insects and animals, the consequences may be even steeper.

When a Purdue University computer model tracked the effects of releasing just 60 “Frankenfish” (genetically modified salmon) into a population of 60,000, there was a complete extinction of the normal fish in just 40 fish generations… The petition is calling for the FDA to reject the release of GM mosquitoes in the Florida Keys. You can sign the petition now to voice your support.