Four years ago, the Zika virus became an issue. More than 300 people were infected in Texas. Zika can cause birth defects and fetal neurodevelopmental abnormalities in pregnant women.
The vector is Aedes (rhymes with ladies) aegypti and Aedes albopictus mosquitoes. The Aedes mosquitoes transmit Zika, chikungunya, dengue and yellow fever, which prompted state and county health officials to discuss actionable solutions to control the mosquito.
Talks about releasing genetically modified mosquitoes in Houston began in 2018 between Harris County and Oxitec, a United Kingdom-based company that produces sustainable technologies or transgenic methodologies to stem the impact of disease-spreading insects. Talk also began about a similar action in Monroe County, Fla.
However, ecological concerns have been raised about the use of these mosquitoes.
“We had stakeholders there who wanted to use it,” said Kevin Gorman, head of field operations at Oxitec. “We had vector control authorities who were keen to try the technology.”
The Environmental Protection Agency stated in a May 2020 press release that it approved an experimental use permit to Oxitec to field-test its genetically engineered mosquito in the United States.
The genetically modified Aedes aegypti mosquitoes are males that mate with wild female Aedes aegypti, essentially causing the offspring to die before they can reproduce due to a genetic variation.
Oxitec had two successful years of controlling the Aedes aegypti in Brazil with its current generation of mosquito and had several years of efficacy in Brazil with its first-generation, Gorman said.
A release in Florida seems imminent, but not in Texas. Despite an established relationship and much communication, it looks like the Florida Keys will be going solo.
“Although we really enjoyed a sort of really great relationship with Houston at the moment we’re in a holding pattern with Houston,” Gorman said. “And we’re unlikely to be releasing there, and there certainly aren’t firm plans to do so in the next year.”
He cited uncertainty due to personnel changes in the county government as the reason for the decision.
A statement sent to Reform Austin by Sam Bissett, a communications specialist with Harris County Public Health, said the choice to not move forward with the release was made last year by both parties.
“At this time, there are no agreements or approval in place for Harris County to work with Oxitec in 2021. While we have had discussions with Oxitec previously about a potential partnership with Harris County Public Health, those discussions were paused last year between both sides.”
See here for my previous post on Oxitec and mutant mosquitoes, from 2017. There’s a lot more to the story and it’s hard to just capture the essence of it, so go read the whole thing. Apparently, the Aedes aegypti mosquito is more abundant in the Rio Grnade Valley than in Harris County, so maybe we’re not the best place to test this out in the US. Harris County also employs mosquito traps and dragonfly armies to control the local skeeter population. Which all seems a whole lot more quaint these days, but Zike and its ilk haven’t gone away just because we’re mostly inside these days. We will be spending more time outside again, and when we do we’d like to not be at significant risk from some other emergent deadly disease, thank you very much. Maybe next time we’ll be able to work something out.