US gives green light to GM mosquito tests in Florida

Full releases begin in Cayman this week

Oxitec project manager Renaud Lacroix beside the vehicle from which genetically modified mosquitos will be released via a fan mechanism into neighborhoods in West Bay. - PHOTO: TANEOS RAMSAY

As Oxitec and the Mosquito Research and Control Unit ramp up releases of genetically modified mosquitoes in West Bay, regulators in the U.S. gave the company the green light to test the GM mosquitoes on an island in the Florida Keys.

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration Friday gave what it calls a “finding of no significant impact,” deciding that Oxitec’s mosquitoes will not have a significant impact on the environment. The decision clears the way for Oxitec to run a trial – similar to what the company is doing in West Bay – in Key Haven, Florida, a small island next to Key West.

In Cayman, Oxitec project manager Renaud Lacroix said the company released 75,000 mosquitoes Saturday morning. Speaking over the weekend, he said the release program will “start to be at full speed” in the coming week, with plans to release 150,000 mosquitoes on Tuesday.

Between 100,000 and 200,000 mosquitoes will be released three times a week during the project.

The GM mosquitoes are being tested to see how well they can impact the Aedes aegypti mosquito population, which is responsible for spreading a number of viruses, including Zika, dengue, chikungunya and yellow fever.

Mr. Lacroix, who helped set up Oxitec’s laboratory in the United States several years ago, said, “We’re really pleased the FDA found that this is safe for the environment and for people.”

“It’s a great achievement for us,” Mr. Lacroix added.

He likened Key Haven, the site for the U.S. trials, to Patrick’s Island in Cayman. Key Haven, he said, is a residential area that is “small, kind of isolated and surrounded by water.”

Releasing its findings Friday, the U.S. regulator wrote, “After considering thousands of public comments, the FDA has published a final environmental assessment (EA) and finding of no significant impact (FONSI) that agrees with the EA’s conclusion that the proposed field trial will not have significant impacts on the environment.”

The decision does not give Oxitec’s mosquitoes approval for commercial use. But it does mean that the company can work with the Florida Keys Mosquito Control District, similar to Cayman’s MRCU, to begin work to do field trials on the small island. Oxitec and local officials will still have to meet requirements with other local, state and federal agencies to operate the Florida trial.

Public health officials in the U.S. recently announced that the Zika virus, responsible for severe birth defects in children born to infected mothers, is being locally transmitted in at least one neighborhood in Miami.

There have been four imported cases of Zika in the Cayman Islands, but so far there has been no evidence of local transmission, according to the Public Health Department.

Oxitec’s mosquito control method uses genetically modified male Aedes aegypti mosquitoes to mate with females.

The genetic modification is intended to cause the next generation of mosquitoes to die before they can reproduce.