Canvassers hired by the U.S. parent company of a British bioengineering firm hoping to release millions of genetically modified mosquitoes into a Lower Keys neighborhood will ask respondents to sign petitions that will be used to counter opposition to the proposed experiment.
The Reporter/Keynoter this week reported that Intrexon Corp., which acquired UK’s Oxitec in 2015, formed a political action committee called the Florida Keys Safety Alliance ahead of a Nov. 8 nonbinding referendum asking Keys residents if they are for or against releasing the insects in the Key Haven neighborhood.
The PAC was announced Aug. 30 after this newspaper asked about a Craigslist ad posted Aug. 26 seeking door-to-door canvassers to “speak with voters.” The PAC was behind that ad.
Steve Vancore, owner of Vancore Jones, a Tallahassee public relations firm hired by Intrexon to handle the communications for the PAC, confirmed Thursday that the canvassers will be asking people in favor of the mosquito release to sign a petition stating so. Vancore did not go into detail about the petition’s language.
Mila de Mier, a Key West resident and member of Never Again, a citizen group opposed to Oxitec’s plans, said she has already distributed an online petition that has more than 100,000 signatures from people opposed to the experiment.
The majority of the five elected board members of the Florida Keys Mosquito Control District, which would help Oxitec with the project, said they would vote against allowing it if the two November ballot initiatives — one for Key Haven residents and one for the rest of the county — showed most constituents oppose the plan.
Derric Nimmo, project development manager for Oxitec, said his company would respect the wishes of residents no matter how voters decide on the referendums. But that likely would not be the end of the company trying to show the effectiveness of project in reducing populations of the Aedes aegypti mosquito — which spread Zika, dengue fever and chikungunya.
“We would go elsewhere and prove it works and come back.” Nimmo said Thursday.
Oxitec is also coming under fire from Lower Keys doctors who are concerned the GM mosquitoes could spread antibiotic-resistant bacteria throughout the trial area. The plan is to release more than 14 million male mosquitoes born in a lab into Key Haven. They will breed with natural female Aedes aegypti insects. The males, which don’t bite, are genetically engineered to sire dead offspring.
Dr. John Norris, a Key West clinician, filed a petition last month with the district and Oxitec wanting to know what kinds of bacteria the GM mosquitoes carry. He and the approximately 30 doctors want a sample of the mosquitoes to be independently tested.
But Nimmo refused and responded in an Aug. 31 email that the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, which approved the Key Haven trial, and the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and the Environmental Protection Administration concluded “the likelihood of adverse effects associated with development of anti-microbial resistance is extremely low.”
Nimmo told the Reporter/Keynoter that even if he wanted to, he could not provide Norris or his colleagues a sample because the FDA would not allow it.
The answer did not satisfy Norris, who said Thursday that FDA approval is not a failsafe for experimental biological technologies.
“Physicians know FDA approval is only the minimum safety and benefit expectations for a treatment to be used. FDA approved other controversial pesticides as well. They were and are still studied. Some were later withdrawn,” he said. “Others we accept despite important flaws. None have been anointed perfect. Sometimes we must choose between imperfect choices. Facts are key to making this choice.”