Over the past few years, people have been freaking out about a plan to release genetically modified mosquitoes in the Florida Keys, concerned that, in addition to combating the spread of the Zika virus and other mosquito-borne illnesses, the mosquitoes would usher in some sort of sci-fi catastrophe. Now, the British biotech company behind those mosquitoes is in negotiations with Houston area officials to release the mosquitoes in Harris County, The Houston Chronicle reports.
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If a deal goes through, Houston could be the first place in the United States to release genetically modified mosquitoes.
In August, the US Food and Drug Administration gave the green light to a proposed field trial of the Oxitec mosquitoes in the Florida Keys, finding that it would “not have significant impacts on the environment”. But after years of pushback from the small bedroom community outside of Key West where the trial was proposed, the project has stalled after residents of the area voted against releasing them there.
Oxitec must submit an additional environmental assessment to the FDA in order to move forward at a new site it Florida. It would also be required to complete such an assessment in Houston in order to move forward with any plans there. That process can be slow — in Florida it took years.
Oxitec’s mosquitoes are engineered to include two copies of baby-mosquito killing genes, overriding natural selection to make it almost certain that their offspring receive the killer gene from dad. This, in turn, would slowly make the local mosquito population dwindle. The company claims that trials in Brazil, Panama and the Cayman Islands have reduced mosquito populations by 90 per cent, calling the success “an unprecedented level” of human control over nature. (The World Health Organisation, for it’s part, has stated that while the technology “has demonstrated the ability to reduce the [mosquito] populations in small-scale field trials” there is still “an absence of data on epidemiological impact”.)
Zika panic has largely receded from headlines, but in Texas it has just begun. The Houston area has had no documented cases of locally transmitted Zika, but in December the state had its first local transmission a few hundred kilometres away in in Cameron County, near the Mexican border. According to the Centres for Disease Control, there is not yet any evidence of a widespread local epidemic. But as Houston’s hot, humid summer approaches, it seems officials are seeking out every tool possible to fight the spread of the disease.