GMO Bugs vs. Pesticides in the Fight Against Zika Virus

Florida residents have launched a campaign to fight the introduction of genetically modified mosquitos in the Florida Keys. British company Oxitec has received preliminary FDA approval to release three million male mosquitos in Key Haven, close to Key West.

These mosquitoes have been genetically modified to produce offspring that would die before adulthood. Oxitec claims that the release of these mosquitos in the Keys would help to prevent the spread of the Aedes aegypti mosquito, which is known to carry dengue fever, chikungunya and, more recently, the Zika virus.

The proposal comes in the wake of growing concern over the emergence of Zika in Florida. Last year, a NASA research team used factors such as temperature and rainfall to produce a national Zika risk map for the coming summer. The map showed that the areas of highest risk in the US were centered around Miami and the upper Keys.

Earlier this year, the World Health Organization (WHO) stated that the Zika virus is a global threat, following an increasing number of reports from Latin America that seemed to link cases of Zika with brain damage in infants, suggesting that Zika may impact fetal development. Whether this is true or not remains to be proven; however, the threat remains.

Despite this, residents of the Florida Keys remain adamant in their opposition to the proposed GMO mosquito release. Close to 168,000 names have been included on a petition that opposes the plan, a figure that represents more than twice the combined population of the Keys. The local response to the proposed release was so heated that the Florida Keys Mosquito Control Board made the decision to put the issue on last year’s August 30 primary ballot.

Mila de Mier, one of those who started the petition against Oxitec’s planned release, stated, “I’m angry now. They’re doing this against the will of the people.” The petition reflects this sentiment, claiming that “even though the local community in the Florida Keys has spoken – we even passed an ordinance demanding more testing – Oxitec is trying to use a loophole by applying to the FDA for an ‘animal bug’ patent. This could mean that those mutant mosquitos could be released at any point against the wishes of locals and the scientific community.”

They have a point. There have been several cases where genetically modified crops have resulted in unintended consequences: the accidental development of superweeds, ultra-resistant bugs and pests, and species of fungus that have become stronger and more persistent than before. The petition also notes that there has been insufficient research by Oxitec to determine what effects the “mutant mosquitos” might have on the animal and insect populations of Florida, particularly those that depend on the Aedes aegypti mosquito species as a food source.

Despite all this, to date the only viable alternative to Oxitec’s GMO mosquitos is DDT, a noxious insecticide that was banned in the 1970s due to growing concerns over health risks. While this chemical was effective in controlling mosquito populations in the US, it has also been linked to serious health issues in humans, which are still affecting people today. A recent study from the University of California, Davis, found a significant link between prenatal exposure to DDT and an increased risk of developing metabolic syndrome in females. DDT has also been associated with hormonal disruption in humans, miscarriage, hypothyroidism and cancer. The chemical has been classified as a serious environmental toxin that can bioaccumulate in ecosystems and thereby affect countless generations of animals and organisms.

Thus, with Zika on the rise and Florida residents overwhelmingly against the introduction of Oxitec’s mosquitoes, the US government may be starting to seriously consider reintroducing DDT back into the world. That’s a tough decision to make.

Concerned about the spread of the Zika virus? Find out more here.

—Liivi Hess 



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