Florida Keys residents object to release of genetically modified mosquitoes

Holly Bensur Contributor
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The Florida Keys Mosquito Control District (FKMCD) is taking action to release genetically modified mosquitoes into the Florida Keys, but over 100,000 residents have signed a petition against the project.

Key West realtor and animal rights activist Mila de Mier created the petition claiming the UK-based biotech company Oxitec “is trying to use a loophole by applying to the FDA for an ‘animal bug patent.’ This means these mutant mosquitoes could be released at any point against the wishes of locals and the scientific community.”

Oxitec developed the genetically modified mosquito with “a lethal gene that causes the death of the next generation,” Haydn Parry, the company’s CEO told The Daily Caller.

While de Mier warns this project is against the community’s best interests, Michael Doyle, executive director of the Mosquito Control District, told TheDC, “A recent survey of Key West residents showed that 38 percent were for it, 29 percent ambivalent, 26 percent against and 8 percent had not heard about it.”

Oxitec’s chief scientist Luke Alphey told Bloomberg in May that Oxitec began an investigational new animal drug file with the Food and Drug Administration. De Mier argues that Oxitec — not the FKMCD — is the driving force being bringing the the mosquitoes to the area.

The petition claims Oxitec could release the mosquitoes at any time against the requests of local residents, but Parry argues, “it’s not us that want to make a release, it’s the Florida Keys Mosquito Control District.”

“We opened the case because its our technology. In the same way that any food, pharma, vaccine company or any other type of company would that goes through FDA /EPA/USDA etc. So we opened the file as its our product, our data etc.,” the CEO said. “The Florida Keys Mosquito Control District are the ‘customers.'”

Doyle said that the Mosquito Control District canceled plans for a release last November after learning that the USDA would not regulate the technology. He said the the District has no plans to immediately release the mosquitoes.

“When we receive a permit from the regulatory authorities, we will reconvene to decide if this strategy will be an option for Key West. We have no timeline presently,” Doyle said.

De Mier also complains that “this process is far from a democratic one, and to date it has involved very minimal public engagement.”

Doyle disagreed, saying that FKMCD is trying to persuade Key West residents genetically modified mosquitoes are in their best interest through “hundreds of one-on-one conversations between field staff and the public, local radio, newspaper and our website.”

“We intended to launch a formal public information campaign once we had a permit, but that has been put on hold along with the actual release,” he explained.

Parry told TheDC those who signed the petition are “a bit activist and don’t really understand it and I think are trying to stop it. A lot of that is not based on fact; I think it’s based on people misunderstanding what we’re doing here.”

Dengue fever is in more than 100 countries and affects as many as 100 million people worldwide. It broke out in the Florida Keys in 2009 when aedes aegypti mosquitoes gather in rainwater, which causes the spread of the virus.

“It can come in waves,” Chris Tittel, a spokesman for the Monroe County Health Department told The Daily Caller. Of the 93 cases, most were locals and there has not been an outbreak of dengue fever since November 2010.

Florida Keys officials have been using chemicals in the forms of fogs and sprays to keep mosquitoes at bay, but the pests always return and the process repeated.

If the FKMCD does go ahead with Oxitec’s mosquitoes after proper regulations are approved, only males, which do not bite, would be released.

“Each wild female will produce roughly 70-100 eggs when they mate. They can produce about 500 eggs in their lifetime. So you’re releasing lets say several thousand males which will have the ability to reduce the population of mosquitoes out there by several hundred thousands. The benefit you’re bringing about there is astronomical,” Parry told TheDC.

These genetically modified mosquitoes have “obviously been bred in a laboratory so they do not have dengue,” and all their offspring die because of the lethal gene so there is no risk of them spreading disease, only of the mosquito population decreasing in the Florida Keys.

As for concerns not enough research has been completed to warrant the release of these mosquitoes, Parry told TheDC, “We have shown that this approach works in Cayman, Brazil etc. so this would not be a scientific ‘does it work?’ type trial but more about whether the approach fits with the practices/ organization etc. of FKMCD so they would have a tool to use with confidence in the future should they so wish.”

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Holly Bensur