GMO Mosquito Application Withdrawn — But Another Is On The Way

Nov 28, 2018

People who live in the Florida Keys have been waiting for years to find out whether the island chain will be the first place in the U.S. to try genetically modified mosquitoes as a method of controlling the pests.

They're going to have to wait awhile longer.

Oxitec, the company that developed the genetically modified mosquito, has withdrawn its application with the Environmental Protection Agency to try the technology in the Florida Keys and Harris County, Texas.

Oxitec plans to re-apply with a new version of the technology. The new application will include the previous proposed trial sites, said Michael Jooste, an Oxitec spokesman.

"We're not expecting a change there, but it may include other regions as well," he said.

Jooste said he did not know if EPA would open a new public comment period for the application, which he says has a lot of overlap with the previous one.

The plan is for genetically modified males to breed with wild mosquito females. Oxitec says only male offspring would survive; female mosquitoes are the ones that bite and can pass along diseases like zika and dengue fever.

That's what's new about the second generation. In the first version, all the offspring died.

According to the company, half of the surviving male offspring would continue to breed and have the same self-limiting effect for several generations. The other half would carry a gene making them susceptible to insecticides, to help counter the increasing problem of resistance.

In its press release, Oxitec CEO Grey Frandsen compared the difference between the two versions of GMO mosquitoes to going from a Model T to a self-driving electric car.

Some residents of the Keys have opposed the trial and say they will object to the new proposal.

"We have repeatedly asked for Oxitec to work with us to prove the technology is safe," Barry Wray, executive director of the Florida Keys Environmental Coalition, said in a statement.

"Instead of receiving Oxitec's cooperation to provide this confidence, we have witnessed a pattern of avoidance, misprepresentations, obfuscations and using marketing and political influence to persuade the regulatory and community stakeholders to proceed with what is truly a poorly designed experiment on our public and ecosystems," Wray said.

The effort to try genetically modified mosquitoes as a mosquito control technique in the Keys began in 2009, after a dengue fever outbreak in Key West.

Oxitec received a finding of no significant impact from the federal Food and Drug Administration to conduct a trial in Key Haven, a neighborhood on a peninsula a few miles from Key West.

In 2016, Keys voters had their say in a nonbinding referendum. In Key Haven, a majority opposed the trial. Monroe County voters as a whole approved.

Oxitec submitted a new application covering the entire Keys — with a specific trial site to be determined. And the reviewing agency was changed to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.

The Florida Keys Mosquito Control District has approved the proposed trial, which was awaiting review by the EPA.