Agreement places district staffers under Oxitec’s control

The agreement between the British company developing genetically modified male mosquitoes designed to produce dead offspring and the Florida Keys Mosquito Control District places at least three district staffers on the public payroll under the direct supervision of the UK firm.

The degree to which the employees must answer to higher-ups at Oxitec extends to minute details like sick time and vacation.

“The [district] shall ensure that all employees of [the district] assigned to work for the project manager cooperate fully with the project manager and give the project manager advanced notice of any planned absences for work and notification of absences due to illness as soon as is practical to do so. Oxitec reserves the right to exclude individual employees of FKMCD from the project team in its absolute discretion.”

The agreement, unanimously approved by the five-member elected board of the district in February 2015, also gives Oxitec say over what information about an experimental release of bio-engineered mosquitoes — green-lit by the federal government on Aug. 5 — gets released to the public during the trial period. Oxitec wants to release its GM mosquitoes in the Lower Keys neighborhood of Key haven.

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration approved the experiment on Aug. 5, but the Mosquito Control Board will not give it the go-ahead pending the results of a November nonbinding ballot initiative on the issue. The agreement has not been signed by anyone from the Mosquito Control District and won’t be until the results of the referendum are in, said Beth Ranson, public education and information officer with the district.

The agreement states the district must “notify Oxitec in writing at least seven calendar days before the publication of any data or survey results and will at that time provide Oxitec with a copy of the proposed publication. If Oxitec objects to the proposed publication, it will refer the matter to the steering group, who will determine how best to proceed.”

The steering group comprises three Oxitec employees and at least two Mosquito Control District staffers, including the district executive director, according to the agreement, which was posted on the Facebook page of Never Again, an activist group started by Keys residents opposed to the Oxitec project.

“The Parties agree to notify one another and provide a copy of any intended press release or public statement 24 hours before the release of any such statement, interview or publication. All press releases are to be agreed by both Parties wherever possible prior to publication,” the agreement states. “Where there is disagreement as to the content the Parties agree to provide one another with 48 hours’ notice of their intention to proceed with the release of the statement so that the other Party can make an independent statement on the same material.”

Members of Never Again say the agreement’s language demonstrates that the district has provided a private company a leadership role in a public health issue.

“These are pretty onerous demands,” said David Bethune of Key West.

Ranson rejected the notion that the agreement was “leaked,” as it was described on Never Again’s Facebook page.

“It’s never been a hidden document,” Ranson said Thursday.

Oxitec wants to release millions of the genetically modified bugs so they will mate with natural female Aedes aegypti mosquitoes living in the Lower Keys community of Key Haven. Aedes aegypti mosquitoes carry the Zika virus. Oxitec says its male mosquitoes are genetically programmed to reproduce offspring that will not live past the larvae stage. The goal of the project is to kill off or significantly reduce Key Haven’s population of Aedes aegypti mosquitoes.

Antibiotic-resistant bacteria concerns

Zika is a widespread epidemic in South and Central America. It causes a birth defect called microcephaly, in which babies are born with underdeveloped brains and shrunken heads. It is also likely linked to neurological disorders in adults. However, most people infected have no symptoms and the virus runs its course in a matter of days.

But U.S. health officials are increasingly concerned because Zika is gaining a foothold in the country. Florida, as of Thursday, reported 405 Zika infections, the majority of which were contracted abroad. Miami-Dade County has been the hardest hit, with almost 200 cases — 157 travel-related and 39 contracted after being bitten locally by an infected Aedes aegypti mosquito.

Monroe County has had only one reported case, and a group of 19 Lower Keys doctors are concerned that the unknown risks associated with releasing the genetically-modified mosquitoes outweigh the danger Zika poses. They filed an Aug. 17 petition to the Mosquito Control Board wanting to know more about the mosquitoes Oxitec plans to release in Key Haven.

Leading the charge is Dr. John Norris, a Key West primary care physician, who worries releasing the bugs may expose the area to a slew of antibiotic-resistant bacteria. His concern is rooted in the fact that the trigger Oxitec scientists added to the male mosquitoes to ensure their offspring don’t grow up is the antibiotic tetracycline. Use of tetracycline in farm animals has led to antibiotic-resistant bacteria and infections in humans, Norris said.

“I’m very concerned,” Norris wrote in an Aug. 5 open letter to Key Haven residents. “The tetracycline requirement has been genetically built into the insects as a death switch to control the insects’ population once released. Hence, no tetracycline and the insects live a short time.”

Mosquitoes, like all animals, have bacteria on the surface of their bodies. The bacteria on the surface of a mosquito loaded with tetracycline could be resistant to antibiotics, which Norris and his colleagues fear may quickly spread through the small Key Haven community.

“The issue here is the use of an important antibiotic in what appears to be a new version of the same way farmers created antibiotic-resistant pathogenetic bacteria in the past,” Norris wrote.

Norris said in an interview that he is not against using genetically modified science as a solution to health problems, but Oxitec has not released enough information about the types of bacteria its mosquitoes will be carrying. And without that information, he cannot support the company’s endeavor.

“I’m not against GM,” Norris said. “I’m against being stupid.”