Wolbachia-infected bugs approved for March trial

Although numbers remain low for cases of the Zika virus in the Florida Keys, health officials continue to take proactive measures.

Biotech company MosquitoMate Inc., working through the University of Kentucky, received approval last week from the Florida Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services to try to reduce the population of Aedes aegypti mosquitoes in the Florida Keys using mosquitoes infected with the natural bacteria Wolbachia.

MosquitoMate already received approval from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to use Wolbachia in efforts to prevent the virus that can cause birth defects in the newborns of women and flu-like symptoms for others.

The Florida Keys Mosquito Control Board meets at 9:30 a.m. Friday at Mosquito Control’s building at 503 107th St. bayside to vote whether to approve the transport of the bugs from Kentucky to the trial areas in March 2017. Roughly 100,000 male Aedes aegypti mosquitoes with Wolbachia would be released every week into three one-acre trial areas in Stock Island and Key Largo for six months should the board approve.

Aedes aegypti mosquitoes, which carry Zika, are not naturally infected with the Wolbachia bacteria. So if a female Aedes aegypti mates with a male that has Wolbachia, her eggs will not hatch, according to Dr. Stephen Dobson, founder and CEO of MosquitoMate.

In 2010, MosquitoMate biologists injected an egg at the University of Kentucky, which grew up into an adult female and passed it along to her offspring and they passed it along to theirs.

Wolbachia infects 60 percent of insects and is not known to harm humans, Dobson said.

According to Beth Ranson, public information officer for the Mosquito Control District, the locations selected for the Wolbachia trial have Aedes aegypti populations that are significant enough for a trial and far enough away from Key Haven, where British biotech company Oxitec could possibly release genetically modified mosquitoes in spring 2017 in its own effort to reduce the Aedes aegypti population.

U.S. Food and Drug Administration approval was not necessary for MosquitoMate like it was with Oxitec because MosquitoMate would release mosquitoes with a biological agent, not a genetic agent, Ranson said.

As of Monday, Florida saw 1,024 confirmed cases of Zika, according to the Florida Department of Health. Five of those were found in Monroe County and the infections took place outside the U.S.

Katie Atkins: 305-440-3219