The Mosquito Trials: Goodbye Zika or Communal Autonomy?
An article published by U.S. News & World Report in early August of this year announced that groundbreaking trials to combat mosquito-borne viruses, such as Zika, are well on their way to become a reality in the Florida Keys by means of the very insect at the source of it all – the mosquito (1). An approach to eradicating mosquito-borne diseases that is of prominent focus is genetic modification of the mosquito’s DNA (2). However, the community at the epicenter for proposed trials – Key Haven, Florida – is strongly protesting the idea of releasing genetically modified (GM) mosquitoes in their neighborhood (3). Since the recent proposal for GM mosquitoes, a Change.org petition in protest has attracted 170,300 signatures since Tuesday, November 1 (4). Although Key Haven residents are sparking clear concerns and open contentions about the unknown consequences of a genetically modified organism (GMO) in their community, the FDA has given its full approval of the trial (2).
The question then arises: should the FDA, public agencies, or private companies who approve and create such biotechnology in an effort to advance research and control wide-spread diseases for the common good have priority over the people living in the communities under experimental trials? It turns out that the answer to this question is much more complex than a simple yes or no.
Oxitec, the British biotechnology company pioneering the GM mosquito, has openly supported trials in Key Haven since 2010, when a small outbreak of dengue – another prevalent mosquito-borne disease – was reported by a member of the Florida Keys Mosquito Control District (2). Oxitec bioengineers male Aedes aegypti mosquitoes by introducing a deleterious mutation in their DNA, which prevents their offspring with a wild-type female from surviving to full maturity (1, 2). Male Aedes aegypti mosquitoes are the target of genetic modification, because only the males bite humans, while the species itself is notorious for harboring many human diseases, including Zika, dengue, yellow fever, and chikungunya (1). Over time the GM mosquitoes would lower the amount of disease transmission by gradual reduction of the females and eventual eradication of the Aedes aegypti population as a whole. The potency of Oxitec’s GMO has proven itself in action by reducing dengue transmission in Brazil and Panama by 90% (2). The idea behind Oxitec’s proposal is that the same effects would translate over to the Florida Keys.
Amidst the strong track record of Oxitec’s GMO, what could be the possible concerns of the Key Haven community? The creator of the Change.org petition and a Key Haven community member, Mila de Mier, says that the Florida Keys should not be blinded by Oxitec’s numbers in support of the GMO, but should shift its attention to the greater uncertainties (1). She emphasized that the release of Oxitec’s GM mosquitoes could have much graver consequences than the benefits of preventing a Zika outbreak in the U.S., such as 1) harm to the indigenous Florida Key Bat population that feed off of mosquitoes; 2) mutation of the existent dengue virus to become increasingly resistant to treatment options; 3) the small, unaccounted release of female Aedes aegypti mosquitoes that can bite humans; and 4) a lack of peer-reviewed, independent research other than that sponsored by Oxitec to confirm the safety and efficiency of its genetically modified mosquitoes (1, 4). In fact, De Mier does not stand alone; roughly 58% of 89 Key Haven residents who responded to a community-wide survey by Johns Hopkins University Bloomberg School of Public Health either oppose or strongly oppose Oxitec’s approach (1).
Two of the most poignant responses to Oxitec’s proposal by protesters have even been quoted as: “I’m not your human research subject” and “You can't just use us as a guinea pig without our consent" (1).
Yet, despite such strong concerns, the FDA stands firm in its position that the GMO will not have any significant impacts on the environment or community of Key Haven (1). Moreover, CEO of Oxitec – Haydn Parry – has been quoted as saying, “We respect the fact that not everyone is an expert and that this is new, but this is getting a thumbs-up from experts across the world” (1).
Beneath the surface, though, what does the position of the FDA and Oxitec tell the community of New Haven? Does their fixed stance show a lack of empathy or understanding for the residents at the center of the proposed experimental trial? Are the voices and opinions of elite research companies and authoritative agencies around the world to be headed over those from a small community? If this is the case, then a much bigger concern exists: a misconception of the relationship between the common good and communal autonomy. By advocating for the GM mosquito trials, both Oxitec and the FDA are motivated to better the common good, or the global community of citizens that are all susceptible to mosquito-borne diseases. On the other hand, a large portion of Key Haven residents are genuinely advocating for their communal autonomy, or their freedom to have a valid voice and right to self-determination, in the outcome of the proposed trials. Although there is a disconnect between communal autonomy and the common good in this case, the truth is that both go hand-in-hand. The reality of the relationship between communal autonomy and the common good is that one cannot last very long without the other. The deep-rooted concerns of Key Haven residents cannot be silenced in the name of advancing the common good, because both are unequivocally the same.
On November 8, 2016, Key Haven residents will have the opportunity to vote for approval or disapproval of Oxitec’s proposed GMO trial in a nonbinding referendum that will be added to the General Election ballot (1, 5). The final say, though, rests with the Florida Keys Mosquito Control District on whether the release of Oxitec’s GMO will be allowed (2). At present, three of the five members that comprise the Florida Keys Mosquito Control District say their vote will align with the outcome of the referendum, but two of the three are close to re-election season and one of the three is set to retire (1).
In the end, Key Haven and other regions within the U.S. that are subject to mosquito trials in the near future are faced with a difficult task: finding a common ground between the autonomy and central beliefs of the community and the efforts of larger organizations that have both local and international agendas. One certainty that should be prioritized in the GM mosquito trials is the essential role of individuals and their respective autonomy in shaping the common good. The freedoms and responsibilities of individuals to voice their concerns and take part in decisions that will impact the community as a whole are key to a strong democratic foundation. While the non-binding referendum will soon be held for Key Haven residents, Oxitec’s GM mosquito trials will have a directly binding impact on the community and larger Florida Keys if the proposal is approved. If the voice of the community is sacrificed for the efforts of the common good, then the common good will ultimately be sacrificed as well. Therefore, the voices and opinions of the individuals on the ground must be given serious consideration when deciding the final outcome.
1. Leonard, Kimberly. (2016, Aug. 15). Florida Locals Bugged by Proposed Release of Genetically Modified Mosquitoes. U.S. News & World Report. Retrieved from http://www.usnews.com/news/articles/2016-08-15/florida-locals-plan-to-protest-proposed-genetically-modified-mosquito-release
2. Joseph, Andrew. (2016, Oct. 26). Ambitious experiment plans to release bacteria-bearing mosquitoes at large scale. STAT Health. Retrieved from https://www.statnews.com/2016/ 10/26/mosquitoes-wolbachia-bacteria-virus/
3. Branswell, Helen. (2016, Aug. 26). Genetically modified mosquitoes have wide support among Florida residents. STAT Health. Retrieved from https://www.statnews.com/2016/ 08/26/gm-mosquitoes-florida-poll/
4. De Mier, Mila. Say No to Genetically Modified Mosquitoes Release in the Florida Keys. Change.org. Retrieved from https://www.change.org/p/say-no-to-genetically-modified-mosquitoes-release-in-the-florida-keys
5. Florida Keys Mosquito Control District. (2016, Nov. 3). Latest Information on the Proposed Oxitec GM Mosquito Project. Retrieved from http://keysmosquito.org/latest-gm-information/