FDA backs down from releasing genetically modified mosquitoes after lawsuit threatened

By Kristin Danley-Greiner | Jan 8, 2017

KEY HAVEN, Fla. — When the U.S. Food and Drug Administration announced that it was dropping plans to release millions of genetically engineered mosquitoes in Key Haven, Florida, many people breathed a sigh of relief.

This controversial plan — the dropping of which was announced on www.centerforfoodsafety.org — was designed to help fight the Zika virus with mosquitoes that had been genetically altered. It would have been the first such initiative executed in the United States. However, attorneys for Key Haven and concerned citizens noted that the FDA did not complete adequate testing on the potential impact the release would have on people, the local environment, nor area species concerned threatened and endangered.

Local residents were presented with the issue via voting ballot in November 2016, in which voters unanimously shot down the release. The Florida Keys Mosquito Control Division met after the Nov. 8, 2016, public referendum and voted against the trial run in Monroe County in Florida, according to www.flkeysnews.com.

In order for the overseas manufacturer, Oxitec, to test drive its genetically modified mosquitoes again, it would have to resubmit its application complete with pertinent environmental impact data for a new site, wherever that might be, according to www.centerforfoodsafety.org.

Barry Wray, executive director of the Florida Keys Environmental Coalition, said opponents are concerned that Oxitec will reapply for a permit that would include all of Monroe County, not just Key Haven. He said opponents also worry that the FDA would not insist Oxitec answer questions on the second go-round that the company glossed over the first time it proposed releasing genetically modified mosquitoes in Florida.  

“Because the Mosquito Control District voted against it, the issue regarding the release is dead,” Wray told the Florida Record. “However, allowing one community to make that decision sets a precedence. Individual rights are important under the constitution.”

Wray said opponents to the release had “very good cause” to object not just because of the potentially negative impact to the environment and local species, but also because it’s essentially testing or experimentation on humans, too.

“These mosquitoes will survive without tetracycline,” Wray said. “We were very upset with the company and the FDA that they would feel like it’s okay to release a product, an exotic species that would spread its DNA into the wildlife population and pollute our indigenous mosquitoes, without answering many questions about the safety first.”

No matter what efforts are taken, mosquitoes carrying the Zika virus will always be a problem, because they are a global pest, Wray said. He added that there is a product based on bacteria that’s harmless to humans and was developed at the University of Kentucky that is a more viable option that genetically engineered mosquitoes.

“With that product, the male mosquitoes are infected with a strain and 100 percent of the offspring die. It’s a natural bacteria and it’s harmless to humans, because our body temperature is too high for the bacteria to exist,” Wray said. “It’s already found on 65 percent of insects globally and has been around for a long time.”

As an engineer with a master’s degree, Wray said he and other local environmental activists had legitimate concerns about the genetic modification of the mosquitoes when there wasn’t any third party reviewing studies.

“I’m friends with the chief scientist that is down here all the time, and I’ve told him that this was a bad idea for our ecosystem and no one did the work to investigate the efficacy further,” Wray said. “The bacteria is used in Brazil, Australia and Vietnam. It prevents the virus from entering their salivary glands and the mosquitoes die before they can spread disease. Allowing the release would be requiring us to submit to blind flying hypodermic needles coming at us. It would be an experiment we couldn’t get out of.”

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