That’s the question hanging over a recent decision by state regulators in Florida, which would allow the biotech company Oxitec to unleash hundreds of millions of genetically modified male mosquitoes in the Florida Keys. The lab-altered, patented insects are members of Aedes aegypti, the species of mosquito that spreads diseases such as yellow fever, malaria and chikungunya. However, they’ve been genetically altered to artificially reduce future mosquito populations.
It sounds like a bit of mad science but it’s all about love, actually.
The plan is to unleash millions of genetically modified males so they can hook up with all the lady mosquitoes and produce artificially weak offspring that never grow up, thereby reducing the overall population. Male mosquitoes don’t drink human blood, so the influx of flying fellas theoretically wouldn’t add to the problem.
Advocates say it’s a new population control strategy that could save millions of human lives around the world while getting rid of some annoying and dangerous bloodsuckers. Mosquitoes are among the deadliest animals in the world according to the World Health Organization, which attributed 438,000 deaths to the insects through malaria alone in 2015.
Critics have described it as a risky experiment with too many unknown factors, especially when it comes to introducing genetically-modified creatures into a natural ecosystem.
The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency gave Oxitec permission last month to run a pilot project with its lab-designed mosquitoes until 2022, and Florida granted the company an experimental use permit this week. The decisions move Oxitec one step closer to releasing its patented insects into the wild, even in the face of lawsuit threats.
But don’t worry — the lab-grown mosquitoes are “Friendly,” according to Oxitec. They’ve even trademarked the name.
“Oxitec’s Friendly™ mosquitoes pose no risks to human health or the environment, including fish and other aquatic life, birds, bats, plants, invertebrates, or endangered species,” the company said in a news release celebrating the decision on Tuesday.
Oxitec’s CEO, Grey Frandsen, also applauded the state’s decision.
“There is broad consensus amongst public health officials in the U.S. that a new generation of safe, targeted and cost-effective vector control tools are needed urgently to combat the growing threat posed by Aedes aegypti without impacting the ecosystem,” he said in Oxitec’s news release.
“We’re pleased that the EPA and Florida state regulators have, after extensive scientific reviews, approved our demonstration trials and we look forward to continuing the collaboration with our local partners as they take up the matter.”
Several environmental and anti-GMO groups have announced their intent to sue in the hope of preventing the insects’ release. They claim the company has exaggerated the impact of its past trials, including a test in Brazil.
The plan is a “Jurassic Park experiment,” critic Jaydee Hanson told the Guardian. Hanson has been fighting the mosquitoes’ release as policy director for the International Center for Technology Assessment and Center for Food Safety.
“What could possibly go wrong?” he said. “We don’t know, because they unlawfully refused to seriously analyze environmental risks.”
Opponents to the experiment rallied outside the Florida Keys Mosquito Control District federal office on Tuesday, where they accused the government of treating them like Guinea pigs.
Oxitec is one of several groups experimenting with genetically modified mosquitoes through a patented process.
The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation has also worked with Oxitec to develop something known as a “gene drive” — a genetic modification meant to spread through multiple generations of mosquitoes to leave them sterile or unable to spread certain diseases.
Oxitec has also been eyeing Houston for its mosquito tests beginning next year.
It’s unclear when the Oxitec experiment in Florida would begin, given the remaining legal challenges ahead of it.