Florida will release gene-edited mosquitoes into the wild, despite outcry

Hundreds of millions of genetically engineered mosquitoes will soon be purposely set loose in the Florida Keys in what those opposed to the venture are calling a “Jurassic Park experiment” in action.

The initiative, a first in U.S. history, aims to reduce mosquito-borne diseases by releasing lab-modified insects so they can mate with regular mosquitoes and produce nonviable offspring. This could eliminate the local population of Aedes aegypti mosquitoes, which are known to spread diseases.

Similar gene-editing techniques have been examined for a number of years, with various approaches being explored, from gene-edited insects that are unable to carry certain diseases like malaria to so-called “gene drives” that cause only males to be born, thereby killing off mosquito populations within a short space of time.

If it works out as planned, the release of 750 million genetically engineered mosquitoes could be a game-changer for fighting diseases like Zika and dengue fever. The approved plan calls for field trials in which 750 million gene-edited mosquitoes will be released over a two-year period in Monroe County, starting in 2021. The five member board of the Florida Keys Mosquito Control District made it decision by a 4-1 margin at an online meeting Tuesday. The trial will be carried out by biotech company Oxitec, which has been working on this specific problem since 2009.

Not everyone is happy about the plan being given the official go-ahead. There are numerous concerns that have been raised by scientists and members of the public, including that it might result in the creation of hybrid mosquitoes more resistant to insecticides.

“With all the urgent crises facing our nation and the state of Florida — the COVID-19 pandemic, racial injustice, climate change — the administration has used tax dollars and government resources for a Jurassic Park experiment,” Jaydee Hanson, policy director for the International Center for Technology Assessment who also works with the Center for Food Safety, said in a statement. “Now the Monroe County Mosquito Control District has given the final permission needed. What could possibly go wrong? We don’t know, because [the Environmental Protection Agency] unlawfully refused to seriously analyze environmental risks. Now, without further review of the risks, the experiment can proceed.”

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