The new tactic may be implemented just in time. Last Friday, two new cases of the virus –which has been linked to serious birth defects - were reported in Florida. Scientists believe it could spread rapidly as summer weather arrives creating enhanced conditions for hatch outs. Scientists are concerned exploding populations will up the ante for those seeking to contain the spread of the virus. Work is also continuing on the development of a vaccine for Zika but it is widely believed virologists are years away from having an effective vaccine.
So, scientists have been exploring alternative methods to arrest the spread of Zika and the latest technique involves releasing swarms of genetically modified mosquitoes across the Florida Keys. While this may sound like a futuristic Si-Fi movie, there are sound precedents for utilizing biologically altered “cousins” to combat and contain dangerous fauna populations. Take, for example, the Mediterranean fruit fly which has long been viewed as a global agricultural pest.causing substantial damage to a wide range of food crops. To combat the fruit fly, the company Oxitec developed GM-males with a lethal gene that interrupted female development killing them in a process called "pre-pupal female lethality". Then, after several generations, the fly population diminishes as the males can no longer find mates.
It is looking likely that Florida will utilize genetics in the fight against Zika. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) recently gave a tentative nod to the plan and the New York Times just published a detailed opinion piece supporting the plan. In addition, recent opinion polls show the public is widely in favor of giving it a try.
This is not the first time, Florida has explored using genetically modified mosquitoes to control the spread of dangerous diseases. In 2012 when dengue fever threatened to overtake South Florida scientists, looked at using engineered mosquitoes created by Oxitec.
Mirroring genetic control of the Mediterranean fruit fly mentioned earlier, these specially bred mosquitoes have a "kill switch" in their genes: When they breed with the local population of Aedesaegypti — the variety of mosquito that carries chikungunya and Zika — they spread a gene that kills the next generation. This in turn leads to the collapse of the whole future population.
There are those who oppose the plan. Critics argue that the long-term effects of releasing millions of GM-insects are impossible to predict. Dead fly larvae could be left inside crops. Helen Wallace from Genewatch, an organization that monitors the use of genetic technology, opposed the introduction of the genetically modified flies, saying. "Fruit grown using Oxitec's GM flies will be contaminated with GM maggots which are genetically programmed to die inside the fruit they are supposed to be protecting". She added that the mechanism of lethality was likely to fail in the longer term as the GM flies evolve resistance or breed in sites contaminated with tetracycline which is widely used in agriculture.”
Similar arguments exist about the use of genetically modified mosquitoes.
“We cannot predict the long term effects and it is dangerous to play with Mother Nature,” said Robert Williams a scientist who opposes the use of GM insects in any manner.
Williams’s position mirrors that of a woman who appeared at a public hearing in the Keys, this past week.
The elderly woman who spoke with a notable British accent and refused to give her name said she was worried that decimating the population of one mosquito species could damage the local food chain and ecosystem. "Everything has a purpose," she exclaimed.
Mila de Mier, a local real-estate agent agreed, saying, "They're going to spend our money for us to become guinea pigs. We want this place to remain natural, to be the way it is. We don't need their mosquitoes... Mr. Doyle (referring to entomologist Michael Doyle with Florida’s Mosquito Control District) wants to be a pioneer. He wants to be the first in the U.S. to do this type of experiment."
Because of widespread public opposition, the GM mosquitoes were never used in the dengue fight and until the Zika outbreak, those types of concerns seemed to be prevalent. According to recent news reports, “nearly 170,000 people signed a Change.org petition against releasing the winged insects in the Keys.
The arrival of Zika appears to have softened opposition since it is so serious having been linked to microcephaly, a serious birth defect that causes children to have abnormally small heads. A survey taken by Purdue University last February found 78 percent of people nationwide support using GM mosquitoes to fight Zika and a new poll just a few days ago by the Associated Press found 56 percent of the public backing the plan.
Now that the FDA has given preliminary approval to the idea by releasing a statement last month saying that “the mosquitoes probably wouldn't harm humans or the environment,” it is even more likely that the plan will be put into play.
Nevertheless, the feds will allow 30 more days for public comment on whether to begin a trial release of the GM mosquitoes in the Florida Keys. Should that trial go well, releases would be conducted throughout Florida.
Given the grave threat posed by Zika and the swinging national mood, it seems likely that the GM mosquitoes will soon be buzzing around the State.