Lower Keys Wolbachia trial could be extended

A meeting Thursday will determine whether releases of Wolbachia mosquitoes continue in the Lower Keys past the end of an ongoing trial period to see if they kill off disease-carrying bugs.

Efforts to drive down the local population of Aedes aegypti mosquitoes on Stock Island started in mid-April with the release of thousands of mosquitoes infected with the natural bacteria Wolbachia by the Florida Keys Mosquito Control District. There are 25 sites in a 10-acre area on Stock Island, up from 20 sites originally. The increase was because there wasn’t enough data to show whether the trial was working.

Each week, 75,000 male Wolbachia mosquitoes are shipped to Stock Island from biotech company MosquitoMate, which received approval from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency in October for the trial.

The mosquitoes seek out wild female mosquitoes with which to mate and the eggs never hatch due to the Wolbachia, which is found in 50 percent of insects and is not harmful to humans, according to Dr. Stephen Dobson, founder and chief executive of MosquitoMate.

While it was set to last 12 weeks, the trial could be extended possibly through the rest of the year, to be decided Thursday.

“If we can get better data by lengthening the trial for a few weeks, it’ll be better for all parties,” said Mosquito Control Executive Director Andrea Leal. “Most likely it will be extended.”

Dobson said there is ongoing discussion each week about how the trial is progressing. Thursday’s meeting is a phone conference.

“Our permit goes through 2018 and the reason to stop in December would be because the mosquito population goes down naturally,” he said, adding there will be input Thursday from the Mosquito Control Board and others. “MosquitoMate is able to manufacture as many mosquitoes as needed, but it’ll be a decision that’s made by the group.”

Katie Atkins: 305-440-3219