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Decision taken not to release GM mosquitoes in Florida

A plan had been drawn up to release millions of genetically engineered mosquitoes in the state of Florida, focusing on the area of Key Haven in Monroe County. The aim was to use the modified insects to control the spread of viral diseases like Zika and Dengue fever. Genetically modified insects have been used in Brazil, Cayman Islands and Malaysia as part of control programs.

The scientific reasoning behind the proposal was to use a genetically modified male mosquito that, when it breeds with females, produces offspring that cannot breed. The idea is that this will gradually lead to a reduction in the mosquito population that can carry viruses of concern, like Zika. Such mosquitoes are modified using synthetic DNA (what is termed a “gene drive”). Initial trials suggest the mosquito population can be reduced by up to 80 percent. This needed proving, however, on a bigger scale, hence the idea of using parts of Florida as a test bed.

The decision not to proceed has been made by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) following a poll conducted as part of the November 2016 general election. The reasons for not going ahead are various, including the impact on people and on endangered species.

The FDA said in a statement, issued to the Center for Food Safety: “per the public referendums which took place on November 8, 2016, and the subsequent board meeting of the Florida Keys Mosquito Control District (FKMCD) on November 19, 2016, the proposed field trial is no longer moving forward in Key Haven, FL. Because residents of Key Haven voted against the trial, FKMCD commissioners agreed that the trial will not be conducted there.”

This infers that the idea of releasing genetically modified mosquitoes has not been abandoned altogether and that another area may be selected for the trial. Before this happens the company who planned to create the genetically modified insects – Oxitec – will need to be resubmit the application.

A number of campaign groups lobbied against the release of the insects including the Center for Food Safety, Friends of the Earth, Foundation Earth, the International Center for Technology Assessment, the Florida Keys Environmental Coalition, and Food & Water Watch.

The outcome prompted said Dana Perls, senior food and technology campaigner with environmental group Friends of the Earth to comment: “This is a victory that protects local communities from reckless experiments. The FDA should never let people and ecosystems be treated as laboratories. We need long-term and sustainable solutions to prevent mosquito breeding grounds.”

Written By

Dr. Tim Sandle is Digital Journal's Editor-at-Large for science news. Tim specializes in science, technology, environmental, and health journalism. He is additionally a practising microbiologist; and an author. He is also interested in history, politics and current affairs.

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