Biotech firm’s bid to control dengue fever using genetically modified insects faces growing public opposition. It took a decade for the biotechnology firm Oxitec to develop genetically modified mosquitoes whose progeny die before they can spread dengue fever. But it took only three months for Mila de Mier to gather 100,000 names from people opposed to the release of the mosquitoes in Key West, Florida, where the potentially lethal disease is making a comeback... the company says that the virus already evolves in humans to optimize its fitness. It also notes that male mosquitoes do not bite, and that although a few engineered females might be released, any DNA they might transmit is not toxic or allergenic. Entomologists say that no animals in Florida feast solely on this species of mosquito. Florida’s negative reaction contrasts with that in Bahia state, Brazil, where residents in Juazeiro cheered the opening of an Oxitec mosquito-production facility on 7 July. Some Brazilians initially voiced concerns similar to those of de Mier and others, says Margareth Capurro, a biologist at the University of São Paulo, who led the Juazeiro trial. But she and her team engaged the community through meetings, radio and local television before seeking approval for their trial from Brazil’s agency for biotechnological safety, CTNBio. Capurro continues to spread the message that GE mosquitoes are not a threat and that they fight a disease that residents know and fear. “We release the mosquitoes around 8 a.m., and the kids like to follow us,” she says. “Sometimes you see them running back to older people in the village to explain what we’re doing.” Dengue fever is a smaller problem in the United States than in Brazil, but health officials were alarmed when it reappeared in Florida three years ago after an absence of more than 70 years. Since 2009, 94 cases have been reported in Key West, and dengue prevention has become a top priority. Tourists often visit the area after stopping in dengue-infested countries, and a population of A. aegypti is there ready to spread the disease once it arrives, says entomologist Michael Doyle, director of the Florida Keys Mosquito Control District (FKMCD) in Stock Island, a taxpayer-funded operation that spends more than US$1 million a year to control A. aegypti in Key West with insecticides.
Via Alexander J. Stein