Nonbinding vote on release of GM mosquitoes in the Lower Keys might go countywide

The mosquitoes that carry the Zika virus are in the Keys.
The mosquitoes that carry the Zika virus are in the Keys.

All registered Monroe County voters should be eligible to cast ballots in a nonbinding referendum over whether genetically modified mosquitoes should be released in the Keys, a local official says.

The Florida Keys Mosquito Control Board voted last month to allow only residents of the Key Haven subdivision, just outside Key West, to vote because that's where Mosquito Control wants to release the bugs in a pilot project. Key Haven has nearly 800 registered voters.

When the board meets at 2 p.m. Tuesday at Mosquito Control's building on 107th Street bayside in Marathon, Commissioner Tom McDonald will ask his four colleagues to allow the countywide vote. Friday, the county had 54,229 people registered to vote.

"It's not just an issue for that little area, Key Haven," McDonald said. "We're the Mosquito Control District for all of Monroe County."

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration on Friday closed a public comment period on the proposal to modify the DNA of male Aedes aegypti mosquitoes so the offspring of their young can't reproduce. That mosquito species carries the Zika virus, which can cause fever, rashes and joint and muscle pain. The virus is also linked to microcepaly, a birth defect that causes children to be born with shrunken skulls and brains.

The Aedes aegypti also carries the dengue virus, which has symptoms similar to Zika. There were 27 reported cases of dengue in Key West in 2009 and another 65 in 2010 but none since.

The FDA has found that releasing the GM mosquitoes in the Keys would have no significant impact on human health or the environment. Mosquito Control is partnered with British insect-control company Oxitec on the release plan.

Mosquito Control commissioners Steve Smith, Jill Cranney-Gage, Bill Shaw and Chairman Phil Goodman have indicated they would side with however the majority of the Aug. 30 referendum votes. McDonald said he's leaning toward the release.

"At the moment, I'm in favor of the science," he said. "This has been run through the hands of some scientists and they have put this through all the drills. It's not an experiment on people. It's not new. It's been used in the Cayman Islands, it's been used in Brazil."

"Some people think it's going to be Jurassic Park," McDonald said, adding "if we don't get control of this, it's really going to affect the south part of Florida for tourism. We need to be proactive and on top of this. Our [federal] government is getting ready to throw $2 billion into research on this."

"Even if it were to move forward if the FDA said yes, you're looking at a while," Smith said. "It would take six months to get ready to do the trial. We have the lab set up. Then they would have to produce the eggs. I assume they would ship them over" from England. "We would not have this tool immediately at our disposal."

The Keys lab Oxitec set up is at Mosquito Control's Marathon building.

When Friday's FDA comment period ended, some 2,200 people had weighed in. Reaction appears split.

"This is unconscionable to even consider doing something like this," one person wrote. "No man or organization on Earth has the right to manipulate and release uncontrolled substances or organisms into environments. There is no way to predict what will happen to these organisms or the impact they will have on local ecosystems and in fact the world."

"In field trials in Panama, the Cayman Islands and Brazil, the genetically engineered Oxitec OX513A mosquito has achieved significant reductions in the population of Aedes aegypti mosquitoes, the species that carries Zika virus.

"Oxitec's innovative technology has the potential to provide a low-impact and highly successful tool in the fight against these mosquitoes. I fully support the FDA's finding of no significant impact as well as the pilot deployment and release of Oxitec's mosquitoes in the Florida Keys," wrote another.