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Zika Virus Primed to Hit US—Jury Still Out on GMO-Mosquitoes

Makers of specially modified mosquitoes designed to combat the Zika virus have approached regulatory bodies in multiple countries seeking approval to use their products in the fight against the mosquito-borne virus. The virus has already presented a public health challenge to many regions in the Caribbean and Latin America and is expected to hit US shores this summer.

However, despite fears regarding Zika and its troubling complications, including microcephaly, not everyone is welcoming the high-tech intervention.

Oxitec, UK-based manufacturers of a genetically modified mosquito that alters male Aedes Aegypti mosquitoes, the species linked with Zika transmission, with the OX513A gene, has applied to the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) for approval to conduct a field test in Florida sometime this summer. Altered mosquitoes mate with female members of the species when released into the wild.

In trials to date, the offspring of 95% of the mosquitoes altered with OX513A have died before reaching maturity. Company representatives have been active in Key Haven, Florida, where they hope to perform the next round of field tests, lobbying residents and educating them about their approach. Reports indicate that, to date, they have been met with at least some resistance within the community.

Similarly, MosquitoMate, a biotech start-up based in Kentucky, has applied to the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to conduct field tests of its product, which uses the bacteria Wolbachia to modify the Aedes Aegypti mosquitoes, in Florida and Orange County, California. (The firm has already initiated field trials in Clovis, California, with results pending.) Wolbachia has been shown to decrease Zika virus prevalence in treated mosquitoes.

News of these efforts follows on the heels of the World Health Organization’s (WHO) recommendations, announced in March, for “carefully planned pilot deployment under operational conditions of [Wolbachia and OX513A] accompanied by rigorous independent monitoring and evaluation.” Despite, the agency’s support for these technologies, published reports suggest there has been a least some opposition to their implementation registered by the general public, with the FDA receiving nearly 3,000 public comments on the Oxitec proposal; the EPA’s public comment period for the MosquitoMate proposal ends May 31. Petitions and social media campaigns opposing these initiatives—and others like them—have also been reported.

Still, other countries—including China, Vietnam, Indonesia, Australia,, Brazil, and Colombia—have already approved field trials of the MosquitoMate approach, and results to date have been positive. Oxitec recently announced an agreement with the government of the Cayman Islands for use of its product in mosquito control within the Caribbean archipelago, with plans to release “millions” of its genetically modified mosquitoes.

Could the United States adopt one or both of these technologies in its efforts to combat Zika? That remains to be seen, as President Obama’s $1.8 billion virus battle plan is still facing Congressional opposition as of press time. However, with research suggesting that there will be localized cases of Zika in the US in the near future, it’s clear that something will need to be done.
Brian P. Dunleavy is a medical writer and editor based in New York. His work has appeared in numerous healthcare-related publications. He is the former editor of Infectious Disease Special Edition.
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