Inside one company's wild plan to fight Zika with mutant killer mosquitoes


Update: On August 5, 2016, the FDA announced that it agrees with Oxitec’s environmental assessment that the release of genetically modified mosquitoes in a proposed field trial “will not have significant impacts on the environment.” Oxitec still has to make sure other federal, state and local requirements are met, including winning the approval of the Florida Keys Mosquito Control District. But the move marks a significant step forward in the process.

What better way to fight a swarm of Zika-carrying mosquitoes than by creating a pack of genetically modified killer mosquitoes to infiltrate them and bring entire colonies to their death?

This is not the plot of a wild sci-fi movie. It’s something that could really happen. The idea of “mosquito control through genetic manipulation” has been studied by the World Health Organization, and now Oxitec, a biotech company that focuses on insect control, is trying to get the Food and Drug Administration to approve a mutant-mosquito plan it wants to use to tackle the Zika virus.

The plan, which has been proposed amid the first major Zika outbreak in the U.S., would call for the release of thousands of genetically engineered mosquitoes into the affected areas of Miami and greater South Florida.

Here’s how it works: male mosquitoes are engineered to carry a special gene that proves fatal to any offspring they have with female mosquitoes in the wild, thus greatly reducing the overall population. (Imagine hitting puberty and suddenly dying because an evil gene from your dad kicked in and you get the idea.) Oxitec claims that trials in Brazil, Panama and the Cayman Islands have reduced mosquito populations by 90% in what it calls “an unprecedented level” of human control over the reviled creatures. (There’s limited evidence to test that claim; the WHO stated that “this technology has demonstrated the ability to reduce the [mosquito] populations in small-scale field trials in several countries, but there is an absence of data on epidemiological impact.”

Bringing the trials to fruition in Florida—where infections have been largely confined to one area in Miami—would come at a time when federal officials are struggling to control the mosquitoes that carry Zika.

“We need better methods and tools for mosquito control.” — CDC Director Tom Frieden

“In Miami, aggressive mosquito control measures don’t seem to be working as well as we would have liked,” Tom Frieden, director of the Centers for Disease Control, said in a phone call with reporters earlier this week. Authorities currently “don’t have ideal ways to control the particular mosquitoes that spread Zika, and we need better methods and tools for mosquito control,” especially in “a complex urban environment,” he added.

During a press conference in London yesterday, Andrew McKemey, Oxitec’s head of field operations, told reporters that the firm is waiting for approval for a field test of the technology.

“We expect a decision [from the FDA] any minute now,” McKemey said. “We’ve already built a laboratory there [in Florida] — a mass production unit — so we could start immediately.”

The FDA’s schedule isn’t exactly as speedy as McKemey made it out to be (last year, it approved the first genetically modified animal for eating after a 20-year process), but things are moving ahead. Earlier this year, the agency issued a preliminary finding that releasing the mosquitoes into the wild would have no significant impact on the environment or public health. The final stamp of approval will take some time, Theresa Eisenman, a press officer for the FDA, told me.

“While we cannot speculate on a timeframe for completing the environmental review for the proposed field trial, please note that this is a top priority for the FDA,” she wrote in an email.

Additionally, the proposal would have to get approval from local authorities in order to be implemented.

A non-binding vote on the release of GMO mosquitoes was set to take place at the end of the month in the Florida Keys, but was pushed back to the November election.

A recent survey of residents of Key Haven, one of the locations where the experiment would take place, found residents largely disapproved of the idea, citing concerns to public safety with GMO mosquitoes.

The alternatives to the mutant mosquitoes have their own issues. In Miami, a county contractor began flying airplanes over the affected areas earlier this week, conducting aerial sprays. Authorities warned of possible allergic reactions to the insecticides, and the chemical being used—Naled—has been criticized as posing health risks to pets and healthy insects like bees. Meanwhile, county and state spray crews are roaming the streets.

Meanwhile, the CDC is calling for anyone who has been to the affected Miami neighborhoods since June 15 to get tested for the virus. Florida Governor Rick Scott announced on Wednesday that free tests for pregnant women— the most impacted by the virus, which causes birth defects—would be made available at county health departments across the state.

The spread of Zika has passed swiftly through Latin America and the Caribbean, and now it has one foot in the door of the U.S. Releasing genetically modified mosquitoes into an urban population sounds scary, but then again, so is living in the middle of a Zika outbreak.

Daniel Rivero is a producer/reporter for Fusion who focuses on police and justice issues. He also skateboards, does a bunch of arts related things on his off time, and likes Cuban coffee.

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