Petition Against Genetically Modified Mosquitoes in Key West Has Nearly 100,000 Signatures

Categories: Crime
See also "Genetically Modified Bugs Glow Red and Self-Destruct, but Can They Keep Away Disease?"

A petition against the experimental release of genetically modified mosquitoes in Key West has garnered more than 95,000 signatures. In the past 24 hours, more than 10,000 people have signed it.

But if the petition hits its goal of 150,000 signatures, will mosquito officials in the Keys be compelled to give up on their plans? Probably not.

Earlier this summer, we published a cover story on how the experiment would work and why mosquito experts are so keen on the idea. The story featured Mila de Mier, a vocal rabble-rouser who took us into her offices and introduced us to plenty of other Conchs who didn't want their backyards turned into testing grounds for a British biotech firm.

At the end of May, de Mier's petition on had only a few hundred signatures. Interest in the subject has soared recently, likely due to a plethora of news articles from outlets such as Mother Jones, the New Yorker and, of course, New Times. By the end of the day, it's likely de Mier's petition will crack 100,000 signatures.

Oxitec, the company that makes the genetically modified mosquitoes, is in a tough situation. It has struggled to convey the benefits of its mosquitoes and can't seem to shed old taboos that most people conjure when they hear the words genetically modified.

Its technology -- a single species of mosquitoes that contains a self-destruct gene -- could help drive down rates of dengue fever around the world. Dengue is a nasty tropical disease that infects more than 50 million people a year and has a strong foothold in the Caribbean. There was a spat of dengue cases a few years back in the Keys, but the area hasn't had a confirmed case since November 2010.

Mosquito officials in the Keys, however, fear that the disease could reemerge and deal a swift blow to the tourism industry. Genetically modified mosquitoes could potentially keep dengue away from the Keys and be less damaging to the local environment than some of the chemicals that are currently used.

There are, however, numerous concerns that Oxitec hasn't been forthcoming with data showing that its genetically modified mosquitoes are safe and effective at keeping dengue rates down. Groups like Friends of the Earth have been keeping track of every move Oxitec makes in hopes of keeping its mosquitoes out of the U.S.

And although the petition against the experiment has a boatload of signatures, it might not do anything. Michael Doyle of the Keys Mosquito Control District explained that the public health authority granted to the mosquito program trumps the power of local lawmakers.

Before jumping on the anti-mosquito bandwagon, we strongly suggest you spend 15 minutes reading our feature on the subject to better understand the upsides and downsides of Oxitec's mosquitoes.

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Mel Burd
Mel Burd

There are several cheap, effective and environmentally friendly alternatives to GM mosquitoes.  Native plants that repel Aedes aegypti like American Beautyberry can be used as screening to reduce the House Index.  A study using repellent plants in Tanzania reduced all mosquitoes found in houses by 50%, the cost was $1.50 per house which includes maintenance and labor costs.  This can be used with attractants and lethal ovitraps using used coffee grounds or other cheap environmentally friendly larvicides, as well as fan traps on the lethal ovitraps to not only reduce the larvae survival but also catch the adult females.  This push pull method may not only reduce the larvae from surviving, but unlike GM mosquitoes will also target the adult females and reduce the chance of Aedes aegypti entering the home, and at a fraction of the cost. Other methods include the use of some strains of the fungi Beauveria bassiana and Metarhizium anisopliae which some peer reviewed studies suggest can also reduce the survival of Aedes aegypti offspring, but unlike GM mosquitoes can also cause mortality in the adult females, thus reducing both the population and the chance of being bit. Yet another example is use of the bacteria Wolbachia, which some peer reviewed studies suggest may reduce the adult Aedes aegypti lifespan by 50% and unlike GM mosquitoes may actually provide resistance against dengue serotype 2 and chikungunya.  There are several other alternatives as well. What Mosquito Control has failed to mention is that releasing millions of GM mosquitoes including thousands of females could potentially increase the risk of transmitting mosquito-borne diseases.  Releasing millions of male mosquitoes may also increase the risk of chikungunya which a peer reviewed study suggested can be spread when Aedes aegypti mate.  With each male mating as many as 21 times in their lifetime that is a huge risk not worth taking unless the there is resistance against chikungunya, which doesn't appear to be the case for GM mosquitoes.  There have been over 100 cases of chikungunya reported in the U.S. between 2006 and 2009 including cases in Florida, so this a very real risk.  Florida entomologist Walter J. Tabachnick, estimated that if an outbreak that occurred in Italy had occurred in Key West it would have caused 1,200 cases of chikungunya and 4,000 cases if it occurred during tourist season.  The Beauveria bassiana and Metarhizium anisopliae alternatives both reduce the lifespan of the adult female and therefore reduce the chance of chikungunya spreading, they can also be used without releasing more males but instead infecting the already existing males and/or females.  The Wolbachia alternative may reduce the lifespan of adult female Aedes aegypti and may even provide resistance against chikungunya, so even if more males were released there would be a significantly reduced risk of spreading chikungunya compared to GM mosquitoes. There are numerous unknowns such as whether or not the synthetic protein based on sequences from E.coli and the Herpes simplex virus that the GM mosquitoes express could be transmitted to humans during a bite or affect animals ingesting them.  As well as a partially independent lab reporting 15% of the GM mosquito offspring surviving in the presence of chicken found in cat food and a member of the mosquito control district admitting that Aedes aegypti have been found breeding in pet dishes, making such an event likely if GM mosquitoes are released.  Along with Florida Medical Entomology Laboratory's Phil Lounibos stating there is no supporting background evidence that GM mosquitoes would solve a dengue problem.  All of this and more makes a GM mosquito release seem like an expensive, pointless and potentially risky proposal.


Wait until dengue gets good and settled, we'll see a rethink.


We must continue to weigh the benefits, risks, costs and alternatives. The mosquitoes that carry dengue are already present in the southeastern United States, but haven't created an epidemic yet.  Per the map, blue = carrier mosquitoes present without an epidemic, red = carrier mosquitoes present WITH an epidemic.


 @roipolloi The long term effects of a release are unknown.  Oxitec admits that a small percentage of its altered mosquitoes, including biting females, can survive in the lab without tetracycline.  Puerto Rico is currently experiencing a dengue fever epidemic with deaths.  If that happens in Florida the rethink may happen sooner rather than later.


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