Residents in Florida are afraid of the unintended consequences of releasing millions of genetically modified mosquitoes into the environment. Photo by KitsadakronPhotography/Shutterstock
KEY WEST, Fla., Jan. 28 (UPI) -- A number of Floridians are hesitant about being guinea pigs in a newly planned experiment that involves the use of genetically modified mosquitoes to combat dengue fever.
As the FDA wrestles over whether or not to grant British biotech firm Oxitec permission to release the lab-spawned mosquitoes in the Florida Keys, online petitioners are voicing their opposition to the plans with an electronic signature. So far, there more than 143,000 signatures.
"Even though the local community in the Florida Keys has spoken -- we even passed an ordinance demanding more testing -- Oxitec is trying to use a loophole by applying to the FDA for an 'animal bug' patent," the online petition reads. "This could mean these mutant mosquitoes could be released at any point against the wishes of locals and the scientific community. We need to make sure the FDA does not approve Oxitec's patent."
Oxitec has executed three trials in Brazil, Malaysia and the Cayman Islands, all of which showed promise in diminishing the populations of the mosquito species blamed for spreading dengue. Company scientists and project officials say the experiment is safe and that their modified mosquitoes -- males designed to self-destruct during the larval stage, after impregnating wild females -- will prevent further dengue infections.
But skeptics say simply wiping out one species of mosquitoes is hardly a long-term solution. Other species, equally capable of carrying dengue, chikungunya, malaria and other disease will quickly fill the ecological vacuum.
"While it's true we don't know the long-term effects, theoretically, given all the data we've seen, there shouldn't be any," Joe Conlon, a technical adviser for the American Mosquito Control Association, told the Christian Science Monitor. "But that just takes us right back to Jurassic Park when the scientist said the same thing. Movie thinking affecting real life."
He says the skepticism surrounding the mosquito experiment isn't based on science, but on fear of the unknown. But while there may be legitimate reasons for skepticism, most scientists agree with Conlon -- the benefits outweigh the risks.
"We alter things genetically from food to crops all the time," explained Susan Paskewitz, a professor at the University of Wisconsin and researcher at the Medical Entomology Laboratory. "Could there be unintended consequences? There could and there have been, but an outbreak of dengue fever would have a far more substantial effect on the Florida population."