As the mosquito-borne Zika virus continues to spread and pose threats in Florida, U.S health regulators have greenlighted a plan to release millions of genetically modified mosquitoes with the aim of reducing the population of the disease-carrying insects.
The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) on Friday gave its approval to a proposed field trial that would release Zika-killing mutant mosquitoes in Florida.
In a statement about its final environmental assessment of the trial, the FDA said that the project led by Oxitec, a biotech company that specializes in insect control, will not have significant impacts on the environment.
The agency has been reviewing the use of Oxitec's technology, which could potentially reduce the population of Aedes aegypti mosquitoes in the wild, as an investigational animal drug.
The Aedes aegypti mosquitoes are known to carry Zika as well as other human viral diseases such as yellow fever, dengue and chikungunya.
The technology involves inserting an engineered gene into male Aedes aegypti mosquitoes. Once these genetically engineered mosquitoes mate with females in the wild, the offspring they produce cannot survive to adulthood.
"After considering thousands of public comments, the FDA has published a final environmental assessment (EA) and finding of no significant impact (FONSI) that agrees with the EA's conclusion that the proposed field trial will not have significant impacts on the environment," the FDA said in a statement.
The assessment clears the way for Oxitec to start a clinical trial in Key Haven, Florida. The trial would evaluate if genetically modified mosquitoes can suppress the population of mosquitoes over time. It will be up to the people who live in this suburb community to vote in November whether or not the trial can proceed.
The FDA likewise said that its finalization of the EA and FONSI does mean that use of Oxitec's mutant mosquitoes are approved for commercial use. The agency said that the biotech company is in charge of ensuring all local, state and federal requirements are met before it proceeds to conducting the proposed trial. It is also up to the company and the Florida Keys Mosquito Control District to decide when to start the field trial.
Oxitec said that the trials it conducted in Brazil, Panama and the Cayman Islands resulted in the decline of mosquito populations by 90 percent. The World Health Organization (WHO), however, said that while the technology demonstrated an ability to reduce the population of mosquitoes in small-scale field trials, there's no sufficient data yet on the epidemiological impact.