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We Can Wipe Out Disease-Carrying Mosquitoes

May 5, 2016
BIO President and CEO Jim Greenwood wrote an op-ed in Florida’s Sun Sentinel on the genetically engineered Oxitec mosquito, which promises to reduced mosquito populations and lessen the threat of mosquito-borne diseases such as Zika:

The Centers for Disease Control has now confirmed a link between the Zika virus and infants born with microcephaly, increasing the urgency of finding a cure before the height of the mosquito season. Although scientists have made significant progress in Zika vaccine development, final approval is years away according to the World Health Organization. Destroying mosquitoes is the only viable and immediately available option, with the best way to do it starting with their DNA.

British-based biotech company Oxitec has tweaked the genes of Aedes aegypti mosquitoes, the type that carries Zika and other nasty diseases like malaria, yellow fever, dengue fever and chikungunya. Oxitec's technology works to reduce the population of Aedes aegypti by genetically engineering them to pass on a self-limiting gene, which kills their offspring before they reach adulthood. In tests, this approach has lowered mosquito populations by 90 percent or more.

Current mosquito interventions fall short. Even with the best available methods including insecticide spraying, Aedes aegypti can only be reduced by about 30 percent to 50 percent, not enough to prevent the spread of disease. Reversing the ban on DDT is being considered as a potential solution, but dowsing the environment with insecticides could harm other beneficial insects, birds, fish and wildlife.oxitec Graphic1

Oxitec's genetically engineered mosquito is a novel approach in mosquito control because it stops the virus at the source.

Unfortunately, this breakthrough technology has encountered opposition from anti-genetic engineering groups. Activists already have protested the release of the beneficial mosquitoes in Florida and a petition aims to stop the technology altogether. Their reasons are mostly based on unfounded distrust of genetically engineered foods, which is absurd considering no one will eat a genetically engineered mosquito and the vast majority is unable to bite.

Some activist groups also worry that decreasing populations of mosquitoes could deprive birds, bats and fish that eat mosquitoes a major food source. Scientists say that any impact to the wildlife food chain would be minimal as these animals feed on other organisms besides mosquitos.

Furthermore, the insect has been successfully tested in other countries, "successfully reducing populations of the insect by up to 90 percent in field trials in the Cayman Islands, Brazil, Malaysia and Panama," reported Lisa Palmer of Environment 360.

We are on the cusp of a major health crisis, but we have the technology to help prevent it. If the genetically engineered mosquitos can help reduce the spread of the disease — even eradicate it — this could reduce human suffering and lead to millions in health care cost savings.
We can't afford to let unfounded fears about safe technology prevent a solution to a serious health crisis from being used. The WHO has declared the Zika virus an international public health emergency. The virus is rapidly spreading north from Brazil with more than 4,000 recorded cases since 2015.

Scientists advise against traveling to areas where the virus is most prevalent — such as Brazil, where millions are slated to travel this summer for the 2016 Olympics. The economic impact of Zika is likely be damaging for a country that relies heavily on tourism.

In the United States, the Zika virus has spread with more than 50 cases being reported in 14 states, including Florida where Oxitec is awaiting the Food and Drug Administration's green light to conduct trials of its mosquitoes in the Florida Keys. While the cases were all reportedly contracted by travelers, there are concerns that Zika, like dengue and chikungunya, could spread locally.

Florida has the highest number of diagnosed cases of Zika infections at 79, including five pregnant women. To prevent more cases, genetically modified mosquitos must be approved to start trials immediately. Let's not wait for an epidemic to use the technology we have to protect the health of the next generation.

Note:  FDA Comments on Oxitec Mosquitoes Due May 13
The Food and Drug Administration has issued for public comment the draft Environmental Assessment (EA) and preliminary Finding of No Significant Impact (FONSI) for the Oxitec genetically engineered mosquito.

The notice appeared in the Federal Register and comments are due by May 13. Oxitec and parent company Intrexon developed an informational website at that also serves as a portal through which people can submit comments to FDA.