Mosquito vs. Mosquito

Oxitec, a company based in the U.K., is seeking a trial run in the Florida Keys for its genetically engineered mosquito. The company has already had successful trial runs in Brazil and other countries.

A United Kingdom-based group hopes American regulators will approve its genetically engineered mosquito that could help wipe out Zika-carrying mosquitoes in Charleston and other domestic areas.

If the solution comes sooner than later, it would be much welcomed since experts believe a vaccine won’t be developed for several months, if not longer.

Charleston is a well-known home to the Aedes species, the one that carries the Zika virus. A study from the PLOS Currents publication lists the city and 49 others as being “meteorologically suitable” for the species.

There are still no reported cases of the Zika virus in South Carolina, according to the state Department of Health and Environmental Control. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has reported 41 states with confirmed cases, in addition to Puerto Rico and other U.S. territories.

Doctors have learned that Zika can cause brain damage in unborn children. There have been reports of birth defects and other poor pregnancy outcomes in babies of mothers who were infected while pregnant.

“The take home for Charleston is that during the summer months, that mosquito is there and the abundance is high,” said Simon Warner, the chief scientific officer for Oxitec, the U.K.-based group specializing in insect control.

Warner said Oxitec’s genetically engineered mosquitoes are males who mate with females and pass on a gene that kills off the offspring before they develop into adults.

The mosquito has already been tested in Brazil, Panama and the Cayman Islands. The results show that the genetically engineered mosquito reduced the Aedes population by 90 percent.

Oxitec is now looking to test its mosquito in the Florida Keys. The CDC and the Environmental Protection Agency have already approved it and the Food and Drug Administration is still deciding, though it has said there would be no significant impact if Oxitec ran its trial.

“I think it’s a good thing that we’re regulated by the FDA,” Warner said. “We should work through them and that gives the general public confidence that this technology works.”

If approval for a trial run is granted, Oxitec would be able to test the viability of the mosquito but would then have to go back through the FDA to operate on a commercial basis. There are no projections for when the FDA will wrap up the approval process.

If all works out, Oxitec could then distribute the mosquito by working with domestic mosquito control agencies, such as one of the local mosquito control groups in the tri-county area.

The continued Zika uprising garnered more attention from the White House last week. President Barack Obama asked Congress in February for $1.9 billion to combat Zika. Congress’ inaction was met Wednesday with an announcement from the White House that it will redirect more than $500 million used for Ebola resources to fight Zika.

In South Carolina, residents are still being cautioned to avoid mosquitoes by eliminating potential habitats around the yard.

“Some of the things we see are items like kids’ toys, Frisbees turned upside down and gutters being filled with standing water, said David Scully, owner of Mosquito Joe of Charleston.

Scully said mosquitoes can breed in something as small as a bottle cap, so it’s important to remove all standing water threats and to change out the bird bath every couple of days.

Other tips include making sure screen doors have no holes in them, using insect repellent and reaching out to county experts and mosquito companies if a threat arises.

Reach Derrek Asberry at 843-937-5517. Follow him on Twitter @DerrekAsberry.