An island in the Florida Keys makes the perfect testing ground for Oxitec's bugs.
Ever since the Zika outbreak emerged, people have been buzzing about the possibility of using genetically modified mosquitoes to fight against the bug-borne disease. Now the Food and Drug Administration has given the green light to test these insects out in the US, meaning thousands of the lab-designed mosquitoes could soon be released on a small island in the Florida Keys.
Oxitec, a UK-based biotech company that originated at Oxford University, has been given approval to do a field trial of its genetically modified Aedes aegypti mosquito, called OX513A. The Aedes aegypti is the species that transmits both Zika and dengue, but the Oxitec version carries a gene that causes them to die off before they can develop into flying, biting, disease-spreading adults.
By releasing a high enough density of male OX513A into a population, temporarily protected from the effects of the gene by an antidote, the mosquitoes will pass on the deadly gene to the wild Aegypti population and, theoretically, wipe out the numbers.
Oxitec has done field tests before, with success—the company says a trial in Brazil reduced the Aedes aegypti population by 96 percent in six months. But this is the first time the insects will be tested on US soil. The FDA did an extensive environmental impact assessment and public comment period before giving the green light, and concluded that the test would have no significant impact on the local environment (other than, ideally, reducing the population of disease-spreading mosquitoes).
The trial should be pretty low risk, since all of the mosquitoes released are designed to die off, and the location is on Key Haven: a small island off of Key West, which is geographically confined by the ocean. In other words, these mosquitoes aren't going to spread to the rest of Florida, and the US, unless we want them to.
And we very well might want them elsewhere. As of this week, Zika has been transmitted locally in 68 countries and territories, according to the World Health Organization, including the US. Right now, Puerto Rico is in the middle of a massive outbreak, and experts expect Zika to continue to spread throughout the southern states. Though the majority of people infected with the virus don't even get sick, it's been shown to cause to birth defects in the children of some pregnant women who become infected. It's also been linked to Guillain-Barré Syndrome, a disorder which can cause temporary paralysis.
Oxitec mosquitoes have yet to be proven on a large scale, but the technology is a promising addition to the fight against the disease. Researchers are also in a race to develop a vaccine, with good results so far. Everyone from scientists to advertising agencies are trying to help out-of-the-box ideas like recycled tire mosquito traps and mosquito-killing billboards. These are all great steps, but as one of the researchers currently developing a Zika vaccine told me, this outbreak is a reminder that new diseases are constantly emerging. If we want to stay on top of mosquito-borne outbreaks, sooner or later, we're going to have to deal with the vector.
"Do we really have to have such a crisis mentality for every new virus or bacteria that pops up?" said Col. Nelson Michael, a medical doctor and research who is currently part of a team of scientists developing a Zika vaccine at the Walter Reed Army Institute of Research. "Maybe the game isn't to make a vaccine for every pathogen. Maybe the game is to find a way to keep us safe from the vectors that spread those diseases."