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The Florida Keys get a visit from a genetically modified insect this Spring. What happens when a frankenbug comes to town?

The U.S. has gotten the go-ahead from the Food and Drug Administration to deploy a new weapon: a genetically modified male mosquito to fight the Zika virus. The FDA   has released  its environmental impact study of OX513A, a male Aedes aegypti mosquito genetically with a deadly gene it passes to offspring that prevents their maturation into adults.

Researchers also inserted a gene from a species of coral that makes the juvenile mosquitoes, also called larvae, glow in the dark, a process that also produces some of those fluorescent tropical fish you see at the pet store. Genetically modified organisms are becoming all the rage, with a new type of salmon developed that grows at twice the rate of normal salmon and even a pig that glows in the dark (don’t ask me why).

According to the FDA, the GMO male mosquito will be released in quantity in a development near Key West, Florida as part of a  trial. They claim it will have “no significant impact” on the health of the local environment or the people who live in it. The mosquito will compete with normal male aedes mosquitoes for mating privileges, and decrease the population when offspring don’t live to maturity.

Aedes, by the way, is Greek for “unpleasant”. I’ll say.

The CEO of Oxitec, the British company that developed OX513A couldn’t be happier with the results of the  FDA study. He says “now we want to get everybody comfortable with the decision.” That could be easier said than done.

The use of GMO mosquitoes to fight the Zika virus has been in the news, and has the support of the World Health Organization and the CDC (Center for Disease Control).  They believe this will be a promising strategy against the growing threat of Zika, thought to be a major issue in the U.S. during the warm summer months. Zika virus (ZIKV) recently crossed the Atlantic from Africa and Asia.

The virus is passed through the bite of an infected Aedes aegypti female. Zika has been linked to issues such as microcephaly and other central nervous system disorders in babies of mothers who contracted the disease while pregnant. It’s been blamed for higher rates of miscarriage and fetal death, and is connected to a paralyzing condition known as Guillain-Barre syndrome.

A related virus, Dengue Fever, caused outbreaks in Key West a few years ago. Modified mosquitoes were released then also after standard mosquito control techniques were ineffective.  Florida’s warm climate is especially hospitable to the bug, and several pregnant Florida women have tested positive for Zika. Zika virus is also related to Yellow Fever, West Nile Virus, and a number of other infections spread by mosquitoes.

The proposed trial will involve Key Haven, Florida, a group of several hundred homes a mile east of Key West. Residents of the small community are so thrilled with the prospect of a GMO in their neighborhood, however.

They complain that the area wasn’t affected by dengue fever, so why should it  be affected by Zika? They ask why the FDA wants to do an experiment there when there are so many other areas in the hemisphere at higher risk?” The FDA’s safety announcement isn’t doing much to calm their fears.

One resident says “People don’t want to be guinea pigs.” The threat of legal action has been raised.

Oxitec’s CEO responds:  “In any public health program it’s hard to get 100% support, but we have a very significant public health threat before us. The sooner we can show what OX513A can do, the sooner we can make a difference in the fight against this virus.”