Mutant mosquitoes genetically engineered to kill off their disease-carrying kin are safe to test on an island in the Florida Keys, US officials decided on Friday.
The US Food and Drug Administration approval means that Florida officials can allow British biotech firm Oxitec, Ltd., to test its genetically engineered "OX513A" mosquitoes in Key Haven, Florida.
"(T)he proposed field trial will not have significant impacts on the environment," the federal agency said in its "finding of no significant impact" ruling, subject to public comments since March.
"The trial in the Keys also requires approval from the Florida Keys Mosquito Control District board before it can begin," Oxitec spokesman Matthew Warren told BuzzFeed News, by email. That Florida Keys board voted to hold a non-binding referendum on the trial as part of the November elections.
Through genetic engineering, the firm's male mosquitoes contain a deadly gene that leads them and their offspring to die in the wild. Released in droves, the males mate with wild mosquitoes and die off, with their sterile offspring dying as well.
Tested in Brazil, Panama, and the Cayman Islands already, releases of the mutant mosquitoes have been shown to cut populations of the Aedes aegypti mosquitoes that carry Zika virus, dengue, and chikungunya by around 90%.
At a Congressional hearing this summer on the threat to Florida and other Gulf Coast states from the Zika virus, legislators pressed FDA officials to approve the field trial. Miami now has 15 cases of the virus linked to birth defects that spring from bites of native mosquitoes.
However, the proposal to test the mosquitoes on Key Haven has also led to local opposition, with a petition opposing the field trial gathering more than 165,000 signatures. The mosquitoes only travel about 100 yards from their homes during their lifetime, and company officials have argued this will keep them from spreading off the small island during a field test.
“We’ve been developing this approach for many years, and from these results we are convinced that our solution is both highly effective and has sound environmental credentials,” Oxitec CEO Hadyn Perry, said in a statement. "We are now looking forward to working with the community in the Florida Keys."