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FDA approves release of GM mosquitoes in the Lower Keys

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

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration on Friday gave its go-ahead for a test program to release genetically modified mosquitoes in a Lower Keys neighborhood with the goal of reducing the population of Zika-carrying mosquitoes.

British insect-control firm Oxitec wants to test release the bugs in Key Haven. The company says the GM mosquitoes’ offspring die almost immediately. The thinking is that will reduce the Keys population of the Aedes aegypti mosquito.

“The FDA has completed the environmental review for a proposed field trial to determine whether the release of Oxitec Ltd.’s genetically engineered (GE) mosquitoes (OX513A) will suppress the local Aedes aegypti mosquito population in the release area at Key Haven. After considering thousands of public comments, the FDA has published a final environmental assessment and finding of no significant impact that agrees with the [environmental assessment] conclusion that the proposed field trial will not have significant impacts on the environment,” the agency said in a prepared statement.

But don’t look for a release anytime soon. The Florida Keys Mosquito Control Board would still have to approve it.

“This means that if our board approves it, it can move forward,” Mosquito Control District spokeswoman Beth Ranson said. “Regardless, it won’t be available for any use this summer.”

Along with the FDA, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the Environmental Protection Agency performed the environmental assessment.

Zika’s symptoms include pain in the joints, bones and muscles; and fever. It can cause birth defects in the children of women who are pregnant and get the virus. Statewide, there have been more than 350 cases of Zika reported, none in the Keys.

The FDA approval “was a long time coming. This was faster than we expected,” Mosquito Control Board Commissioner Phil Goodman said. “I was hoping it would come the next couple of months. It was a shock we got it so quickly. Personally I am delighted. I think this is a great tool. I know there are people against it.”

“This could be a result of the Zika situation. It may have sped up the process,” Commissioner Steve Smith said, referring to cases of locally acquired Zika reported the past week in Miami-Dade. Most cases have been people returning to the states after getting bitten in other countries.

“I’m pleased that after this long process, the FDA has given their approval and maybe we can start the process,” district Director Michael Doyle said.

Keys residents will vote in a nonbinding referendum Nov. 8 on whether the test release should take place. There are actually two separate ballot questions, one for Key Haven residents only and one for all Monroe County voters.

Larry Kahn: 305-440-3218

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