Bug board OKs Oxitec trial

Genetically modified mosquitoes will be released in the Florida Keys, but the question now is where?

Florida Keys Mosquito Control Board commissioners approved a contract with biotech company Oxitec Saturday, solidifying a long-anticipated agreement for the release of GM mosquitoes as a method of reducing the population of Aedes aegypti.

Although there have been no locally acquired cases of the Zika virus in Monroe County, populations of the bugs that carry it and other viruses are scattered throughout the Florida Keys. Oxitec says the offspring of its mosquitoes die almost immediately, resulting in a smaller population of Aedes aegypti.

The results of two nonbinding Election Day referendums will be considered when choosing where to do the trial. The majority of Keys residents, 57.78 of voters countywide, favored the trial, while 65.16 percent of voters in the Lower Keys subdivision of Key Haven were against the trail in their neighborhood. Key Haven was the initial proposed test site and has now been crossed off the list of possible sites.

Saturday, commissioners Steve Smith and Bill Shaw voted against the release while Phil Goodman, Tom McDonald and Jill Cranney-Gage voted in favor.

“I appreciate all the scientific data and all your hard work,” Shaw said to Derric Nimmo, product development manager for Oxitec who was at the meeting Saturday. “I have never had a doubt about the product and how it works, but I’m not feeling comfortable and I’ll never vote to put Oxitec mosquitoes in a neighborhood where the people don’t want them there.”

Cranney-Gage said the presence of Aedes aegypti continues to be a serious health issue, which was why she voted in favor of the trial.

“We as commissioners are put in these positions to make decisions that are not so friendly, but we need to make decisions that protect our residents,” she said.

The focus now will be finding a trial site and if that happens, Oxitec will have to get permission from the U.S. Food and Drug Administration like it did for Key Haven for a trial that could last a maximum two years.

Beth Ranson, information officer for the Mosquito Control District, said selecting a site will require trapping mosquitoes countywide to find Aedes aegypti populations substantial enough for the GM release. That research could begin in the next month.

“We’ll still be waiting for the FDA approval and two months of data prior to release is necessary,” she said, adding that the trial will most likely take place in spring 2017.

Katie Atkins: 305-440-3219