Unfortunately, the coronavirus isn’t the only threat floating around.
Four years ago the Zika virus became a problem. More than 300 people were infected in Texas. Zika can cause birth defects and fetal neurodevelopmental disorders in pregnant women.
The vector is Aedes (rhymes with ladies) Aegypti and Aedes albopictus mosquitoes. The Aedes mosquitoes transmit zika, chikungunya, dengue fever and yellow fever, prompting state and county health officials to discuss workable solutions to control the mosquito.
Talks on the genetically engineered mosquito release in Houston began in 2018 between Harris County and Oxitec, a UK-based company that makes sustainable technology or transgenic methods to curb the effects of disease-spreading insects. The conversation also began about a similar action in Monroe County, Florida.
However, environmental concerns have been expressed 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 agencies that wanted to try the technology.”
The Environmental Protection Agency announced in a press release in May 2020 that it has granted Oxitec an experimental license for the field test of its genetically modified mosquito in the USA.
The genetically modified Aedes aegypti mosquitoes are males that mate with wild female Aedes aegypti and essentially cause the offspring to die before they can reproduce due to genetic variation.
Oxitec had two successful years fighting Aedes aegypti in Brazil with its current generation of mosquitoes and had several years of effectiveness in Brazil with its first generation, Gorman said.
The latest generation reduced the population of Aedes aegypti by 96% in the first year and by more than 90% in the second. These release experiments were conducted in dense urban environments, according to Gorman.
The second generation has been approved for an experimental use permit in the USA. In 2018, the company switched to the second-generation mosquito, identifying the Florida Keys and Houston as release sites or locations that are essentially year-round of the Aedes aegypti.
The Culex quinquefasciatus mosquito species, a vector for the West Nile virus, is far more common than the Aedes aegypti in urban centers in Texas such as Harris County and the Dallas-Fort Worth Metroplex, said Patricia Pietrantonio, professor in the Department of Entomology in Texas A&M University.
“There are also Aedes aegypti mosquitos in Harris County, but their numbers are significantly lower than those of Cx. Quinquefasciatus, ”she said via email. “Aedes aegypti is more common in the Rio Grande Valley.”
According to Pietrantonio, researchers have found mutations in Aedes aegypti that indicate resistance to insecticides.
Although trials in Brazil have proven very successful, there have been questions about transparency and environmental integrity.
Certain sites selected for release trials were never disclosed, said Iris Gonzalez, coalition director for the Coalition on Environment, Justice and Resilience, a Houston-based environmental protection group. She said this is worrying because “there is a disproportionate density in lower-income communities in Houston and predominantly in Houston color communities”.
She admitted that they are still in the process of fully understanding the problem and its significance, but believes that public input is necessary.
“I think this type of community, especially the communities that would be most affected by a release, sit at the table – at the decision-making table – to chat and maybe see the record or the information that is going on before the Mosquito plate and are only part of this conversation, ”she said.
In ecological terms, there don’t seem to be many. The ecosystem seems safe from the introduction of these transgenic aliens.
“Certainly, similar publications in other parts of the world have shown reductions in Ae. Egyptian numbers, so there’s an important reason to be optimistic, “Zach Adelman, professor in the Department of Entomology at Texas A&M University, told Reform Austin via email. “At the same time, these other studies have shown no adverse effects on the environment. Therefore, there is evidence that there are no direct environmental concerns.”
Gorman said the company’s mosquitoes will eventually thin out the population without leaving a footprint.
“You would not know that Oxitec mosquitoes were released there because the transgene is not persistent,” he said. “As an ecological tool, it is therefore super clean. It’s very purposeful. “
The place of the transgenic mosquito in the US ecosystem could be considered artificial. Gorman noted that the Aedes aegypti is an invasive species that is not native to the United States. Removal would help restore natural balance.
“In an urban setting, there isn’t much competition for an Aedes aegypti,” he said. “There aren’t many things that feed on it in great numbers. It is less than 10% of the diet of almost anything. ”
A release in Florida seems imminent, but not in Texas. Despite an established relationship and lots of communication, it looks like the Florida Keys are going on their own.
“While we’ve had a really great relationship with Houston at the moment, we’re on hold with Houston,” said Gorman. “And we’re unlikely to post there, and there certainly aren’t any firm plans to do so in the next year.”
As a reason for the decision, he cited uncertainty due to personnel changes in the district government.
A statement to Reform Austin by Sam Bissett, a communications specialist at Harris County Public Health, said both parties had decided last year not to push the publication.
“There are currently no agreements or permits for Harris County to work with Oxitec in 2021. While we had previously discussed a potential partnership with Harris County Public Health with Oxitec, these discussions were interrupted between the two sides last year. ”
Oxitec said it was still open to releasing its mosquitoes in Texas.
“We’d love to start talking again … if Texas or others so choose, but we’re not currently pursuing any active releases in Houston.”