More Floridians in favor of GM mosquito release than not, survey finds

It’s a nationwide topic that bugs some Florida residents and keeps them itching for answers. It’s the potential release of genetically modified mosquitoes to fight the spread of Zika virus.

A new survey conducted by the Annenberg Public Policy Center of the University of Pennsylvania found that four out of 10 Floridians “strongly favor” the release of the mosquitoes while 20 percent of Florida residents surveyed “somewhat favor” their use.

Eleven percent were “somewhat opposed” and 19 percent were “strongly opposed” to the release of bio-engineered Aedes aegypti mosquitoes.

The survey involved phone calls to adults across the U.S. from Aug. 18 to 22. Of the 1,472 adults surveyed, 34 percent were Florida residents.

British biotech company Oxitec says the offspring of its GM mosquitoes die almost immediately, resulting in a smaller population of Aedes aegypti, the mosquito species that spreads Zika.

As of Thursday, there have been 534 cases of Zika confirmed statewide, according to the state Health Department. Of those, 43 were locally transmitted and 70 pregnant women have been infected. There have been two travel-related cases in the Keys.

Whether Florida Keys residents favor or oppose the release of Oxitec’s mosquitoes will be determined following two Nov. 8 nonbinding referendums involving the test release of the mosquitoes in Key Haven, a suburb of Key West. Only the Key Haven trial has been approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration. The referendums essentially ask the same thing except one is for Key Haven residents only and the other is countywide.

The final decision will be made by the five-member Florida Keys Mosquito Control Board.

“Some people are treating this like it’s an experiment on people,” said Tom McDonald, secretary and treasurer of the board, adding that regardless of the referendum results, he will support the release of the mosquitoes because it is a health issue. “To turn this into a political issue is really beyond the proper way this should be done.”

Chairman Phil Goodman said he did not support the referendums because of what he feels is a duty to public health, and that he would not guarantee support of the referendum results should voters say they don’t want the trial to occur.

Even if the board approves the Key Haven trial, it could take six months to a year before the mosquitoes are released, according to Stephen Smith, vice chairman who represents a portion of Key West. No matter the referendum results, Smith said he will support the voters.

“It just seems to have so many parts of our community tearing at each other,” he said of the mosquito debate. “I’d like to see what the referendum is. It could go either way. It could come back that a release is favored, and if so, that’s how we should proceed.”

Commissioners Jill Cranney-Gage and William Shaw could not be reached for comment at press time.

Katie Atkins: 305-440-3219