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Florida Keys voters will decide in November on GMO mosquito test run

Derric Nimmo, product development manager for British insect-control firm Oxitec, on Wednesday explains the process to alter the genes of Aedes aegypt mosquitoes in Oxitec’s lab at the Mosquito Control District’s Marathon location.
Derric Nimmo, product development manager for British insect-control firm Oxitec, on Wednesday explains the process to alter the genes of Aedes aegypt mosquitoes in Oxitec’s lab at the Mosquito Control District’s Marathon location. Keynoter

This November, Florida Keys voters will get the chance to weigh in on whether a biotech company’s mosquitoes are the answer to the region’s bug battle that local health officials say now includes the threat of the Zika virus.

The Florida Keys Mosquito Control Board on Wednesday agreed to move a referendum on the issue to the November ballot after a contentious meeting in Key West where dozens who oppose the concept of releasing genetically modified mosquitoes took turns trashing the plan they called a lab experiment on their families.

Last month, the board voted to let the Lower Keys neighborhood set for the test run of Oxitec’s “self-limiting” version of the Aedes aegypti mosquito — Key Haven — decide the question at the August primary. A separate but similar ballot question will go to voters countywide.

Two of the five commissioners — Phil Goodman and Tom McDonald — pushed to scrap the vote altogether. But the board rejected their idea Wednesday, 3-2.

“I'm glad that the polio vaccine wasn't put up for a popular vote,” McDonald said during the meeting at Old City Hall, 510 Greene St. “It wouldn't have passed.”

The plan is to release genetically modified male mosquitoes that don’t bite to mate with wild females. Because of a lethal gene in the biotech bug, any offspring would die before they can sting people and possibly transmit diseases, according to Oxitec’s proposal.

Whatever the outcome, the referendum won’t be legally binding, but a majority of the board has said it will follow the voters’ wishes.

Commissioner Jill Cranney-Gage, who lives in and represents the Key Haven neighborhood where the GMO mosquitoes would be released, said taking direction from voters is the proper step to take. Board attorney Dirk Smits advised members that under state rules they can’t delegate their responsibility to the public but Cranney-Gage repeated she will make her decision based on the election results.

The Aedes aegypti mosquito can carry dengue fever, chikungunya and Zika.

In March the federal government gave tentative approval to the proposed plan, finding “negligible” environmental impacts, and the World Health Organization recommended testing Oxitec’s mosquitoes.

The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in April confirmed a 70-year-old Puerto Rican man died in February from Zika-related complications, and has urged state and local agencies to prepare for Zika spreading.

This year’s election could change the Mosquito Control Board’s lineup as incumbent Bill Shaw is not seeking re-election and two other commissioners, Steve Smith and Cranney-Gage, have drawn competition from candidates from other parties.

Commissioners run by party affiliation and the primary is set for Aug. 30.

WLRN reporter Nancy Klingener contributed to this report.

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