OXFORD, England -- Genetically engineered (GE) mosquitoes have taken wing for the first time in Panama, as part of an innovative approach to combatting the pests that spread dengue fever.
Following official approval from Panama's National Biosafety Committee in January, the first GE mosquitoes have been released in a suburb of the Arraijan district, west of Panama City, as part of a controlled field experiment to evaluate the effectiveness of the approach for controlling the dengue mosquito in Panama.
The male mosquitoes used in the evaluation (males do not bite or spread disease) have been engineered with a lethal gene, which will kill the offspring of any female mosquito which mates with them.
The releases are being conducted by Panama's Gorgas Institute.
From Friday 25 April, up to 60,000 male mosquitoes are being released three times each week, with releases continuing until the end of the year (the duration of the mosquito season) unless control is obtained earlier. Extensive community education and engagement will be an integral component of the programme.
Speaking about the releases, Dr Nestor Sosa, director of the Gorgas Institute, said:
"Dengue fever is a major concern in Panama. The methods we have for controlling the dengue mosquito are limited and are increasingly of limited effectiveness: dengue cases in this country tripled between 2012 and 2013.
"That's why it's important that we explore every new tool at our disposal. Oxitec's technology has shown great promise in Brazil and the Cayman Islands; it's efficient, effective, and can reduce reliance on pesticides. Assuming we can show it to be equally effective here, we could be looking at an important new addition to our existing approaches for controlling the dengue mosquito -- and that would be very good news for the people of Panama."
With the beginning of this programme, Panama becomes the first Central American country to use Oxitec's mosquitoes as part of a mosquito control strategy. Earlier this month, Brazil approved the commercial release of Oxitec's genetically engineered OX513A mosquito strain, following a number of successful demonstrations of Oxitec's technology in the country.
Dengue is a debilitating disease spread by mosquitoes: primarily by the 'dengue mosquito', Aedes aegypti. It causes severe flu-like symptoms, and is sometimes, though rarely, fatal. Dengue is estimated by the WHO to affect 50-100 million people a year. Dengue incidence is increasing rapidly around the world. In Panama, 2013 saw over 3,000 cases -- more than triple the number in 2012.