The village of Islamorada is a 20-mile stretch of islands in the Florida Keys, so narrow you can often see the ocean on both sides and dotted with beaches, resorts, condos, shops, residential neighborhoods, a Starbucks, and a Burger King.
On a Friday afternoon in March, an Islamorada resident named Virginia Donaldson told Futurism that two men in uniforms walked up to her house, said they worked for “mosquito control,” and asked her to participate in a new pest control program.
Donaldson was in a hurry, so she says she signed their clipboard and watched as they hung a small, black mosquito capture cup from a tree in her yard.
“I don’t even know what I signed. I just signed my name,” she said. “I was like ‘Oh, mosquito control, yeah whatever.'”
Without realizing it, Donaldson had agreed to participate in a genetics experiment during which a British biotech company called Oxitec will release half a billion gene-hacked mosquitoes, engineered to kill off the local bloodsucker population along a lengthy swathe of the Florida Keys.
Breeding and unleashing clouds of genetically engineered bugs sounds like science fiction, but it’s already happening. Locally, some love the idea and others hate it — a fight which has turned ugly, with some residents even threatening to destroy Oxitec’s equipment.
Supporters say it’s a new way to rid the area of annoying, disease-spreading mosquitoes. But opponents are furious about what they describe as a biotech company coming in and strongarming their community into serving as a petri dish for a poorly vetted gene-hacking experiment.
“I find this criminal, that we are being bullied into this experiment,” Florida Keys resident Meagan Hull said at a heated town council meeting in March. “I find it criminal that we are being subjected to this terrorism by our own Florida Keys Mosquito Control Board.”
“We have everything to risk, nothing to gain, and it’s all for Oxitec’s bottom line,” she added.
Oxitec, with the cooperation of the Environmental Protection Agency and local governments, plans to release 500 million mosquitoes, into each of which its scientists have inserted a gene called OX5034. After a years-long process, the EPA approved Oxitec’s plan in May 2020 through an Experimental Use Permit (EUP), a special authorization that allows companies to field test new pesticides.
Oxitec says the mosquitoes, all males — which don’t bite humans — will then breed with wild females, which do bite. But they’ll pass on the OX5034 gene, a hereditary payload that prevents any female offspring from reaching adulthood. The theory is that the more the gene-hacked mosquitoes and their descendants reproduce, the fewer biting female mosquitoes there will be in the area.
This real-world experiment, which is scheduled to begin imminently, will target the mosquito species Aedes aegypti. These bugs only make up two to four percent of the mosquito population in the Florida Keys, but they’re associated with nearly all cases of mosquito-borne illnesses. Oxitec says the trial could help stop the spread of insect-borne diseases that affect humans, like dengue and Zika, by preventing the bugs that carry them from surviving.
If the experiment works, it could represent an extremely targeted way to kill off pests without dangerous chemical insecticides. That would mean less hazardous runoff, less damage to local insects like bees and butterflies, and less biodiversity loss and environmental damage. However, even though Oxitec sold the experiment to the community as a way to avoid spraying chemical pesticides — and repeated the same talking point to Futurism — the Florida Keys Mosquito Control Board has no plan whatsoever to reduce its overall chemical pesticide usage. Even if the experiment is a resounding success, the community will still need to spray just as much as ever in order to control the myriad other mosquito species in the area that won’t be affected by Oxitec’s gene-hacked bugs at all.
“I really tried to be on the side of ‘Yes let’s do this,'” said one Islamorada resident at the March town council meeting. “The more questions I ask, there are no answers, and I just get more questions and more questions.”
Critics fear that the engineered mosquito and the wild population will create genetic hybrids, but Oxitec says the trial runs no danger of permanently altering the wider mosquito population. The mosquitoes released as part of the experiment will carry two copies of the gene, but because they’re mating with females in the wild, their offspring only get one. That means fewer and fewer will carry the OX5034 trait until it gets filtered out of the wild altogether.
Oxitec plans to monitor the Aedes aegypti population using collection cups — one of those things the men in uniforms installed in Donaldson’s yard — in order to see how well the modified genome proliferates.
All that falls apart, though, if any of the female mosquitoes actually do end up surviving and reproducing. When asked about that possibility, EPA spokesperson Kenneth Labbe told Futurism that the experiment will be terminated the moment an adult female carrying the propriety gene shows up during collection.
“In the unlikely event Oxitec finds genetically modified female offspring, they are required to immediately cease releases, apply conventional pesticides targeting the adult and larval mosquito stages and continue monitoring until no female OX5034 mosquitoes are found for two consecutive generations,” Labbe said.
The likelihood of that happening is hotly debated. What we know for sure is that in a previous experiment conducted from 2013 to 2015, Oxitec released mosquitoes in Brazil that carried an earlier engineered gene, OX513A, and eventually released those with OX5034 as well. While the company declared the release a success, scientists unaffiliated with Oxitec from Yale and a handful of Brazilian institutions published research in the journal Nature Scientific Reports claiming some of the mosquitoes had mated, produced viable offspring, and ultimately created a new genetic hybrid population capable of surviving in the wild.
Those conclusions were vigorously contested by Oxitec, which pushed for a retraction. The journal has since slapped an Expression of Concern over some of its findings that still remains unaddressed. Nathan Rose, Oxitec’s head of regulatory affairs, acknowledged that some female OX513A mosquitoes survived in Brazil but said that he’s confident the OX5034 mosquitoes wouldn’t be able to.
Labbe said the EPA was aware of those concerns, but that they do “not alter the Agency’s conclusion that there is a negligible potential for OX5034 female survival during Oxitec’s field test.”
In the wisdom of “Jurassic Park,” though, life finds a way. A sizeable coalition of environmental activists, academics, and residents of Key West have united to oppose the experiment, at least in its current form.
Donaldson, for one, says that after she learned more about the experiment, she decided that she didn’t want to participate. A few days after the men in uniforms installed the cup on her property, she cut it down, put it in a plastic bag so the liquids inside didn’t spill, and left it on a chair in her yard.
Her neighbor walked by later that day and saw three mosquito control workers standing in the road in front of Donaldson’s house when she wasn’t home. When the neighbor approached, he told Futurism, two more emerged from the backyard.
They had shown up unannounced to look for the black cup, which they took with them after speaking to Donaldson on her neighbor’s phone.
“So they’re trespassing, they’re soliciting, they’re going on people’s property,” Donaldson said. “They’re not making appointments to meet with people. So they are definitely violating our privacy.”
But taking a collection cup off Donaldson’s property doesn’t actually opt her out of Oxitec’s experiment. With hundreds of millions of mosquitoes coming and some of her neighbors still participating, how could she avoid it without leaving town altogether?
Oxitec’s Rose handwaved those concerns away, telling Futurism that because the EPA determined the company’s experiment didn’t meet the “regulatory definition of research involving human subjects,” issues like informed consent don’t come into play.
“Oxitec is not testing on humans and this project is not introducing risk to humans, animals, or the environment, as stated by the EPA,” Rose said.
That disregard for informed consent and the residents’ inability to choose whether or not they want to participate are the most troubling aspects of the whole process, Jennifer Kuzma, Co-Director of North Carolina State University’s Genetic Engineering & Society Center, told Futurism.
“The mentality of marketing needs to be switched more to engagement and bidirectional conversation, I think,” she said.
The issue of consent and transparency has frustrated residents as well as activists and experts both in the Florida Keys and beyond, consequently mobilizing them against Oxitec and its planned release. Among them is Dana Perls, a manager at an environmental group called Friends of the Earth that’s based in Washington, DC and California.
“We need to overhaul the regulations and have mandatory independent testing put in place instead of giving [Oxitec] the okay to rubber-stamp its own products as safe,” Perls told Futurism.
Since learning about the experiment in Key West, Perls has been coordinating with local activists and experts to try to prevent it.
“For the community members who are going to be on the front lines of one of the first mass GMO insect releases in the United States, this is not a field trial,” Perls added. “This is a matter of health, of safety, and of the environment.”
From a scientific standpoint, several things stand out about the EPA’s decision to greenlight the release, which followed the same protocol as if it were evaluating a chemical pesticide. First is that the EPA never asked Oxitec to conduct any caged trials — experiments that would show how well the mosquitoes perform in a controlled environment — before allowing the company to go ahead and send its insects out into the world.
Caged trials are a common — and common-sense — first step, Perls explained. Just like new pharmaceuticals are tested on cultured cells and then on animals to make sure they’re safe for human consumption, a caged release would serve as a preliminary demonstration that the mosquitoes do what Oxitec claims they do. And if they don’t, they would help reveal any problems or hazards with Oxitec’s technology before they have the chance to do real harm.
“Before the genetically engineered mosquito is allowed or even considered for release, there should be caged trials,” Perls said. “This is essentially a new pesticide. So there must be a caged trial… in a Florida-like environment. At a time in history when biodiversity is the most devastated it’s ever been, when we’re in the midst of a global public health crisis, we need to be emphasizing scientific evidence.”
Labbe, the EPA spokesperson, defended the lack of caged trials, saying that skipping over them was a deliberate aspect of the project rather than the careless oversight that the experiment’s opponents say it is.
“Based upon a thorough review of all information available to the Agency, EPA has concluded that neither the mosquitoes nor the trial will present unreasonable adverse effects to humans or the environment,” Labbe told Futurism. “Therefore, preliminary caged trials are not necessary given the lack of human or environmental risk. Furthermore, caged trials would be incompatible with the goals of the EUP, which are to seek information on mosquito spatial dispersal, mating and oviposition to evaluate the efficacy of OX5034 for area-wide mosquito suppression.”
Oxitec’s mosquito eggs — which will be delivered to the Florida Keys in “just-add-water” kits that it’s distributing on residents’ property alongside the collection cups — will include both females and males. But the females carrying the gene supposedly can’t survive without the drug tetracycline, so they’re expected to die off as larvae. The company says about 1,000 males will hatch from each kit over the course of two weeks. The problem is that tetracycline is commonly used as an agricultural antibiotic in the area’s citrus groves.
The EPA prohibited Oxitec from releasing mosquitoes within 500 meters of anywhere tetracycline is being used — several times the distance a typical Aedes mosquito will travel in its lifetime. But at no point did the EPA require that water within the release site be tested for traces of the compound.
“In the unlikely event of a female bred with OX5034 laying eggs in an environment with tetracycline present, then female OX5034 mosquitoes could survive if the growth conditions were appropriate and if the tetracycline concentration were high enough,” Oxitec’s Nathan Rose told Futurism.
The EPA’s permit also didn’t require anyone to measure whether a mosquito intervention would actually lead to a reduction in disease transmission or whether introducing more of an already-invasive species would cause unintended impacts on the ecosystem.
“Instead of making assumptions in the assessment, it would have been good of them to test some of the water in the area,” Kuzma told Futurism.
Kuzma was also troubled about the lack of caged trials and the failure to study whether the genetically hybridized mosquitoes that will emerge as Oxitec mosquitoes mate with the wild population are actually more likely to spread dengue — a possibility that no one has bothered to check or study.
“We’re not saying any of those [concerns] should preclude [Oxitec] from releasing them in a short-term experiment, but this particular experiment is going for 18 months and hundreds of millions of mosquitoes will be released,” Kuzma said. “Even though it is an EUP, it’s not a small experiment.”
Meanwhile, part of the regulatory process was veiled from the public eye. Only two pages of documentation about the project were available on the EPA’s website during the designated 30-day public commenting period in 2019, which garnered over 31,000 comments opposing the experiment and just 56 supporting it.
“I tried to find the risk assessment online prior to the decision being made and couldn’t,” Kuzma told Futurism. “That was the spring of 2020. That was pretty unusual to me. Because this was an Experimental Use Permit through the EPA, they don’t have to [share the assessment], I don’t think, but I don’t think that was a good practice to not make that information available to the independent scientific community.”
“There wasn’t an opportunity for independent scientific review,” she added.
Even though the EPA’s assessment is now public, Kuzma notes, the underlying data remains unavailable, unreviewed by independent experts, and unpublished in any sort of academic outlet. That, in Kuzma’s opinion, is the biggest red flag.
That doesn’t mean that Oxitec’s technology is dangerous or that it doesn’t work. But it does mean the company never proved that it’s safe in any public-facing way and neither the EPA nor any other government agency insisted it change that.
“Oxitec is giving us all the information, and they’re the vendor. There’s no third-party independent reviewed science, there are no safety studies, there’s no environmental impact study,” Meagan Hull, the Keys resident who spoke at the council meeting, later told Futurism.
Hull cofounded the Florida Keys Environmental Coalition in response to the Deepwater Horizon disaster, and she’s been working to prevent Oxitec from releasing mosquitoes in Florida since the early days of the project.
“Now that we have accessible data, and now that we have the science, we’re seeing a lot of red flags, concerns, and gaping holes in the regulatory process and oversight,” Perls said. “It’s not too late. The EPA should hit the pause button, and because this could be the first release of genetically engineered insects at this scale, we need to do it correctly. We need to move forward in the most responsible way because we need to set the precedent for future releases.”
And none of this even touches on the fact that male Aedes aegypti mosquitoes are perfectly capable of spreading disease on their own, even if they don’t bite humans. Male Aedes aegypti mosquitoes can infect or be infected by females when they mate, according to a study from 2017. Releasing millions of them at a time, then, might inadvertently increase the prevalence of dangerous diseases in the area and make it more likely that any surviving wild females are carrying a dangerous virus in their blood.
“This is urgent,” Hull said. “The only way to prevent the risks and potential unknown outcomes is to prevent a release of this in the first place rather than clean up a mess after it happens.”
The fight over the experiment came to a head at that March Islamorada town council meeting. During the meeting, Kuzma and other academic experts from institutions including Harvard, Yale, and North Carolina State University expressed their scientific and ethical concerns about the experiment and about possible unintended impacts on the environment. Perls and Hull also testified along with other concerned community members and other activists.
The experts clarified during their presentations, just as Kuzma reiterated to Futurism, that they were neither for nor against the experiment in general. But, they said, they felt it was their duty to help inform the community and that they had identified red flags with how things had been handled thus far and that they had lots of unanswered questions and holes in the data that the EPA used to approve the experiment. Council members were receptive to their concerns and shared some of their own — especially regarding impacts on the town’s tourism-dependent economy — before turning the meeting over to Stanley Zuba, an elected official and the vice-chair of the Florida Keys Mosquito Control Board.
Zuba gave his own presentation in support of the Oxitec release. He was clearly frustrated by what he had seen and heard from the scientists. His voice rose and he seemed to become increasingly heated throughout his brief speech, during which he immediately accused the four scientists of anti-Oxitec bias and claimed that their questions had already been asked and answered over the years.
Zuba then turned the mic over to Nathan Rose, who you’ll remember is Oxitec’s head of regulatory affairs. But instead of saying that, Zuba introduced him as “our” head of regulatory issues, implying that Rose was a government representative — a misrepresentation that wasn’t rectified until after Rose’s presentation when a council member asked him directly.
Passing him off as an expert representing the mosquito control board only further incensed the experiment’s opponents, who see the partnership as evidence of corruption and a sign that they don’t have a say in what happens to their community.
“It was seriously inappropriate to introduce Dr. Nathan Rose as the mosquito control’s expert instead of identifying him as a paid lobbyist, an employee of Oxitec,” a community member who introduced himself as Captain Ed Davidson, Chairman of the Florida Keys Citizens Coalition, said at the meeting. “That was just really inappropriate.”
“I didn’t bring it up in my comments but other people did,” Hull said in a later interview. “That was offensive and just showed a level of, I don’t want to say collusion, but when your own elected officials are working actively against the interests of your community and the outspoken concerns of your community, what other word is there? They’re colluding with this corporation and we don’t know why.”
“It just seems like there’s a lack of transparency and I’m very concerned that all of the information is being generated by Oxitec,” said one resident at the meeting. “I feel like mosquito control is parroting it back to us and there’s not any cohesiveness.”
Donaldson hasn’t heard from the mosquito control board or Oxitec since the techs came and took the cup from her property, but she and her neighbors say they’ve seen others walking around the streets, going door to door as they set up for the mosquito release. Donaldson says she’s deeply frustrated that a private company can use her local government’s resources to solicit residents and push an experiment that, as she describes it, funnels her tax dollars into that company’s pockets.
Other residents in the area have said that they plan to pour bleach into the cups to kill the genetically modified mosquitoes before they hatch.
As it stands right now, Oxitec will probably have its way. Nothing is set in stone, but with so many cups and traps already deployed and with local, state, and federal regulators granting their blessing, the community’s fight over the mosquito release seems unlikely to make a difference.
That’s especially frustrating to environmental activists and experts like Hull, who aren’t opposed to genetic engineering technology in general but simply want to make sure any new initiatives, especially those unleashed on the public, are safe, transparent, and effective — and that area residents get to have their concerns heard, acknowledged, and addressed. Even if Oxitec’s mosquito release does what it’s supposed to, the company failed to convince the very people it’s subjecting to its experiment.
“We want more information,” Hull told Futurism. “We’ve been demanding and asking and begging for more information for ten years. We still don’t have it. That’s why it’s an experiment. They’re using us for their bottom line.”
Maybe there won’t be any long-term repercussions to Oxitec’s experiment. Maybe the gene-hacked mosquitoes fade away after a few generations and the world moves on.
And if the experiment works, and the mosquitoes accomplish what Oxitec says they will, then we could find ourselves on the brink of an incredible new era for pest control. If similar technology could be made to work for other species, we could find ourselves in a world where scientists could genetically engineer away huge swathes of infectious disease like malaria and dengue.
But maybe there will be ecological repercussions. Or maybe the project will backfire in some other way. We just don’t know because there’s so little data available.
The ordeal, though, will set a precedent for future releases of genetically engineered species, which Kuzma says are likely coming soon. And if nothing else, the looming release shows that technology has once again evolved faster than the regulations and safeguards meant to keep it in check. No matter how you feel about this experiment, about mosquito control, or about genetic engineering in general, that’s a problem.
“It’s not specific to Oxitec or the EPA or this particular case, but I do think we need to have a better national policy and decisionmaking process for how communities are involved in these decisions,” Kuzma said. “And a better approach to what we call informed consent. So I think Oxitec followed the process of the government. They didn’t do anything outside of the boundaries of the legal and regulatory system so far. But the question is ‘Is that system adequate for these sorts of emerging technologies being released into ecological systems?’ And I say that I don’t think it is.”