City Council drafts letter of support for GM bug release

On par with 2016, Marathon residents will hear a lot about genetically modified mosquitoes in the coming months.

It’s been two years since British biotech company Oxitec started the process to do a trial release of its “friendly mosquitoes” somewhere in the Keys, but after strong voter opposition at the proposed Lower Keys trial site of Key Haven and multiple delays, it never happened.

Now, Oxitec, owned by Intrexon Corp., is looking for letters of support from local municipalities so it can get funding from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to do trials in the U.S., Monroe County in particular.

For its proposed trial in 2016, Oxitec did not seek funding from the CDC.

“With the hurricane response and everything, there’s been this availability of money for tools so we’re applying for it,” said Derric Nimmo, Oxitec’s product development manager. “One of the important aspects of this is we don’t need that support money — we’re going to pay for the trial completely — but it will help.”

Marathon City Council members voted Tuesday night to draft a letter of support for the CDC funding after Nimmo gave a presentation on the male mosquitoes that are reared with a self-limiting gene. So when the males, which don’t bite, are released into the wild to mate with females, that gene is passed on and the offspring never survive to adulthood, Nimmo said. This results in a smaller population of Aedes aegypti bugs, officials say, which carry Zika and other viruses.

Nimmo also told council members the bugs are released three times a week for roughly six months until the population of Aedes aegypti is lowered.

“Then you don’t have to release that high number of males and you have a choice to either keep the population going or you could stop,” he said.

Nimmo told the council that in trials in the Cayman Islands, “We’ve achieved greater than 90 percent suppression.” He told the Keynoter that number was from a release done in 2010.

More recently, the suppression rate in the Caymans has been closer to 62 percent, according to information released by officials there. About 400,000 bugs are released there weekly.

According to an article Wednesday in the Cayman Compass, Mosquito Research and Control Unit officials have decided to scale back their releases this year because of “budget issues and concerns that more data is needed to assess the effectiveness of the method of suppressing local populations of the disease-spreading Aedes aegypti mosquito.”

For the U.S. trial, Oxitec submitted a new application with the Environmental Protection Agency in December and the EPA now has seven months to make a decision on whether it will issue an experimental-use permit.

Tuesday, Nimmo and other mosquito experts will be at the Mosquito Control's building at 503 107th St. in Marathon to talk about options for suppressing the population of Aedes aegypti bugs in the Florida Keys. The workshop starts at 1 p.m.

Katie Atkins: 305-440-3219