Aug. 19 (UPI) -- Local authorities in the Florida Keys gave their approval Wednesday to a plan to release genetically modified mosquitoes to prevent the spread of dengue fever and other diseases.
The Monroe County Mosquito Control District signed off on the project, which would release about 750 million mosquitoes engineered to produce dead offspring. The state and U.S. government have already given their approval.
It'll be the first time genetically modified mosquitoes have been released in the United States, and some health officials and members of the public have questioned the safety of such a plan.
"With all the urgent crises facing our nation and the state of Florida -- the Covid-19 pandemic, racial injustice, climate change -- the administration has used tax dollars and government resources for a Jurassic Park experiment," said Jaydee Hanson, policy director for the International Center or Technology Assessment and Center for Food Safety.
"Now the Monroe County Mosquito Control District has given the final permission needed. What could possibly go wrong? We don't know, because [the Environmental Protection Agency] unlawfully refused to seriously analyze environmental risks, now without further review of the risks, the experiment can proceed."
The Florida Keys Mosquito Control District considered the plan as a way to restrict the breeding of the Aedes aegypti mosquito, which spreads dengue and other diseases and has shown resistance to pesticides.
The new mosquitoes, engineered by British company Oxitec, were released in trials in Brazil. Studies by Oxitec and other scientists said the program resulted in significant population declines for the disease-carrying insect.
"We have shown that the release of mosquitoes in a neighborhood results in 95 percent suppression compared to areas with no release," said Nathan Rose, director of regulatory affairs at Oxitec.
The altered mosquitoes, which the company calls Oxitec Friendly, are male. Only female mosquitoes bite people or animals for blood meals before they lay eggs.
The altered males mate with female Aedes aegypti, and the female offspring then carry a protein that kills them as tiny, barely visible larvae. The result is a steady reduction in population, according to the company.
Oxitec said it spent 18 years of public-private collaboration with universities, governments, global foundations and more than 200 scientists from over 20 countries developing the program.
But environmental groups believe more study is needed, according to a petition circulated by the non-profit Florida Keys Environmental Coalition. The group cites concerns about potential impact on bats or other animals that eat mosquitoes.
One study of Oxitec's mosquito release in Brazil found that the altered mosquitoes mated with some other types of mosquitoes, according to the findings published in the journal Nature in September by researchers from Yale University.
The result was hybrid mosquito offspring, which the researchers said could be hardier and pose unknown problems for mosquito control.
Paul Brinkmann contributed to this report.