naruedom/iStock/Thinkstock(SAN JUAN, Puerto Rico) — As the number of Zika cases in Puerto Rico skyrocket into the thousands, Congressman Pedro Pierluisi, the island’s sole representative, has called for zika-fighting, genetically-modified mosquitoes to be considered for deployment on the island as one way of combating the mosquito-borne illness that is ravaging the Caribbean island.
In an interview with ABC News, Pierluisi said, “We should be thinking out of the box.”
The virus has infected over 5,500 people living on the island, including at least 676 pregnant women. By comparison, the total for the entire mainland U.S. is just over 1,600.
“I have written to the FDA, the CDC, I have raised the issue in Congress,” Pierluisi told ABC News. “If it is being used in Florida, it should be used in Puerto Rico as well!”
The congressman, who is allowed to advocate on behalf of the island but cannot vote in Congress, also said more needs to be done to develop a vaccine to protect against the virus.
“Because the virus is starting to affect the mainland, finally someone is starting to pay attention,” the congressman said. “As a territory, Puerto Rico often becomes an afterthought for federal authorities.”
According to the CDC, “Hundreds to thousands more pregnant women in Puerto Rico could become infected with Zika by the end of the year.”
Dr. Steve Waterman, chief of the CDC’s Dengue Branch in Puerto Rico, told ABC News that his agency projects that 25 to 40 percent of the island will be infected with Zika by the end of the year.
Genetically-modified mosquitoes have been developed by multiple companies but all are considered experimental in the U.S. and none have been approved for use by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA).
Getting approval for using GMO mosquitoes throughout Puerto Rico is likely to take months or even years. The modified insects are considered an “animal drug,” meaning there is no emergency fast-track approval for “compassionate use” as there is for human drugs, and the technology would be subject to rigorous review.
As ABC reported last month, genetically-modified mosquitos designed by the British biotech company Oxitec could be tested in a small Florida island later this year pending approval by the FDA and local officials.
That trial has been met with resistance by some members of the community.
Additionally, Oxitec CEO Haydn Parry told ABC News that he has not been contacted by the Puerto Rican government for use of the company’s technology, dubbed OX51A3. He said even if the technology was approved tomorrow, it would take months to set up the infrastructure needed to release the mosquitoes on a widespread scale.
“The [FDA] animal drug system is a long-term slow pathway. If we are going to help in Puerto Rico, you’d have to have emergency-use authorization,” he explained.
Parry disagreed that emergency action should not be considered just because the mosquito is classified as an animal drug.
The FDA “needs to find a way to move that forward because the objective is to help human health,” he said.
The FDA declined to speak about the possibility of a mosquito trial in Puerto Rico, since an application for such a trial has not been submitted.
It’s unclear how the genetically-modified insects would be received on the island, which has been a U.S. territory since 1952 and is home to nearly 3.5 million people.
While the virus has reached epidemic proportions on the island, some interventions have been resisted.
On July 6, the CDC urged island officials to begin an aerial spraying campaign to combat the virus using a chemical called “Naled.”
That chemical is toxic to fish, birds, and bees, but does not generally pollute soil or water, according to the Extension Toxicology Network, a collaborative project between several major universities that is hosted by Cornell University.
The proposal was met with street protests, and was eventually killed.
The first phase 1 clinical trials on humans for a Zika vaccine began on Tuesday, National Institutes of Health Director Dr. Anthony Fauci said Wednesday. The trial includes 80 volunteers between the ages of 18 and 35, and is expected to produce data by the end of the year.
Without additional funding from Congress, however, the planning necessary for an eventual Phase 2 would be “significantly” slowed, Fauci said. In the best case scenario, Fauci estimated that a vaccine could be available for use in early 2018.
The vaccine as currently being tested, if approved, would be used for women who are not yet pregnant but who are of childbearing age. Ultimately, Fauci said, a vaccine would also ideally cover sexual partners of any such women.
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