Monday, May 2, 2016

Consent To Mosquitoes

I'm pretty sure if the Federal Food and Drug Administration and the local Mosquito Control Board think releasing genetically modified mosquitoes is a good idea, a bunch of angry home owners won't stop them but who, like the cliche says, only time will tell.
Oxitec is a British company founded by a  group of Oxford University scientists in 2002 and they have been looking for ways to reduce mosquito populations around the world and by so doing reduce the outbreak of serious diseases. It's a worthy cause but now, for some reason  not explained, they want to test their latest batch of mosquitoes in the ritzy neighborhood of Key Haven, at Mile Marker 5 on the Overseas Highway.
Key Haven is five minutes from Key West, ten minutes from downtown (in light traffic) and has traditionally been the unincorporated subdivision where the movers and shakers of Key West live, outside city limits but close enough to show up when needed. This is an island of broad streets, regular sized houses with yards, and freedom from city taxes and regulations. For instance on Key Haven boat trailers parked on the streets is okay, where in the city it is forbidden. 
Traditionally science experiments "in the public interest" are carried out on powerless minority populations. Indeed Oxitec released a version of these genetically modified mosquitoes in the Cayman Islands which reportedly killed off 96 percent of mosquitoes in the islands. All in secret, without any residents' consent. And opponents argue that genetically modified mosquitoes could survive among the four percent and develop immunity and create a whole new generation of problems. The old fashioned way to contain mosquitoes is shown below in a Reuters photograph of mosquito control in Honduras. The human applying the fumes is well protected from their poison which gives you some idea of how this stuff works:
The virus is spreading across South America and one solution is to stem the outbreak by fumigating mosquitoes, pictured in Honduras
I find this whole situation weird and the big question in my mind is what on earth possessed Oxitec to choose Key Haven of all under educated and backwater communities to test this release? Did nobody warn them that hornets live here and they would not be best pleased to have this sort of intrusion? Let's not forget when the Navy routed training flights over Key Haven the uproar  could be heard all the way to Washington.
So why not release these neutered mosquitoes to kill off the local population? All the bitching one hears about mosquito control you'd think people would be delighted. When one looks at the negatives of this mosquito program one hears speculation that the release of these mosquitoes increased the prevalence of the Zika virus in Brazil. Not that there is any evidence you understand, and despite the fact that it now seems likely Zika spread from Haiti to Brazil. In any event opponents of the release, which they have been fighting since 2012 argue that genetically modified mosquitoes pose threats to everything including humans while other surviving mosquitoes may get the upper hand over the modification and become even more nasty.  
As to whether this stuff will work I haven't a clue but I am no great fan of mosquitoes. Oxitec's program is intriguing, as they inject mosquito eggs with a deformed genetic code and keep the mosquitoes alive, only males they assure us though how they know I'm not sure, by feeding them antibiotics. In the wild they mate with the blood sucking females who have offspring who can't find a diet of antibiotics (tetracycline in this case) so they wither and die. End of story. Not so, argue opponents who say tetracycline has been found in wild waters available to mosquitoes so the modified insects could conceivably survive and flourish...Which sounds a bit far fetched to me, more a plot from a novel than realistic, but I have no doubt my attitude is too casual. In my experience these scientific flourishes cause a lot of uneasiness.
I remember when genetically modified tomatoes were grown for the first time in the Pajaro Valley of California. I was a reporter and followed that story for years and stood in the field as the world wondered if we spectators were all going to become GMO zombies in the presence of the unnatural tomatoes. They were grown as planned after endless opposition and became a non-event. Calgene's failure to market FlavSavr tomatoes led nevertheless to most soybeans and corn getting genetic modifications. And no one cares. 
On the whole I find the opponents to be flinging all sorts of pasta at the wall, several different lines of argument, as though hoping one of them might stick. Oxitec offers a chance to eradicate dengue and variants, Zika and so forth from impoverished populations who are vulnerable and hugely at risk. No one else seems to have a clue how to control mosquitoes  except by poisoning us all along with our water and food.  Locally mosquito control drops funny little pellets of bacillus thuringiensis  which is used as a genetic modification in crops to inject insecticide properties into plants. It seems to me the genetic modification genie is well out of the bottle. 
In the end I suppose Armageddon could come out of this closely observed experiment and we could all end up with Zika injected by marauding super-mosquitoes. Or the mosquitoes could die off for a bit depriving local predators, like bats, of their food precipitating another crisis.  I would not like to think of bats dying off because of this.  
In my heart of hearts I want this experiment to succeed because I have seen the misery dengue fever causes. I was caught in central America in an outbreak. For many thousands of Salvadorans it was a death sentence.  For well nourished first world me it was  a nasty fever accompanied by the feeling my bones were breaking. Traveling in Africa as a youngster I had to abandon my motorcycle and fly home from Cameroon when I came down with jaundice and hepatitis A, a lethal illness that kills its mosquito victims. I spent three weeks in an Italian hospital (no bills) and ate a delicate diet for a year and recovered completely. Nigerians and Cameroonians around me weren't so lucky. (Some nice Frenchmen living in Douala shipped my motorcycle, a Yamaha SR500, home to me with the money I left behind for that purpose as I got on the plane).
On the other hand we all know that corporations have this nasty habit of not being completely truthful, BP springs to mind easily. And the lure of gold is not a great inducement to be up front about this sort of thing especially when it doesn't work out. The question really is how catastrophic would it be if things went wrong? Who knows. 
For the time being we will have to live with the nasty little things, cover ourselves in sprays with God knows what ingredients and hop that pellets of BT sprayed over our communities will keep the insects at bay. And one other thing let's hope all these nasty diseases stay well away. Zika was last reported in Jamaica, not too far at all.