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August 31, 2016

GMO mosquitoes to fight Zika opposed by Fla. Keys residents

  • Agency
  • Genetics/Genomics
  • Neuroscience

NBC2 – The need for an effective mosquito solution has never been more urgent as the Zika virus continues to spread across Florida.

On Monday night, the NBC2 Investigators sat down with scientists who say there is a solution. Oxitec has created genetically modified mosquitoes, designed to wipe out disease-carrying mosquitoes.

The FDA has already given the company the green light, but as the NBC2 Investigators uncovered, there's another holdup. 

Oxitec chose a small neighborhood in the Florida Keys called Key Haven to conduct its field trial, and many of the people who live there are putting up a fight.

It's a small community surrounded by water, with about 500 homes, just six miles away from the Southernmost Point.

Scientists want to release 3 million genetically modified male mosquitoes in the community over a six to nine month period.

"If you release enough of our males, over a long enough period of time, you can get the population to crash," said Dr. Derric Nimmo, scientist with Oxitec.

All of the GMO mosquitoes are male Aedes Aegypti. That's the primary species that transmits Zika, Dengue, and Chikungunya -- but these insects carry two extra genes.

"One gene is a self-limiting gene that causes the offspring to die, and the other gene is a marker gene which allows us to track and trace them in the wild," said Dr. Nimmo.

The company already released these insects in Panama, Brazil, and the Grand Cayman, where it claims to have reduced the Aedes Aegypti population by 90 percent.

The Florida Keys Mosquito Control District tells NBC2 Investigators their current methods only kill 50 percent of the Aedes Aegypti population.

But many of the people who live in Key Haven don't care about the numbers.

"They're using us as guinea pigs," said Gina Fox, who has lived in Key Haven for 15 years.

She calls it "Jurassic" science that she doesn't want to be a part of.

"I think they're lying. I think they're just using us," said Fox.

She's not alone.

Dozens of signs that read "No Consent" are staked into her neighbors' front yards and posted on their fences.

"Whenever you try to alter mother nature, mother nature responds. It's not always a positive thing. It could be even worse than what you had initially," said Gregory O'Flynn, another Key Haven resident.
But not everyone is a skeptic.

"I don't think they would pick this neighborhood if they thought it would cause harm to all of us," said Key Haven resident, Janice Reid. "I think it would be a good thing for this area because we do live on the water."

But the FDA's approval doesn't mean these genetically engineered mosquitoes will definitely be released in Key Haven.

"The board has total oversight over the Florida Keys Mosquito Control District," said Phil Goodman, Chairman of the Board of Commissioners, Florida Keys Mosquito Control District.

The Board of Commissioners has the final say, and they're waiting for results of a straw poll on the November ballot, to see what residents think before they make a decision.

"I came to an early conclusion that this looks like good technology," said Goodman.

If approved, Oxitec can begin producing and releasing these mosquitoes in six weeks time.

After Oxitec has a successful field trial in the U.S., the CEO says genetically modified mosquitoes will be sold commercially around the country.

While elected leaders in the Florida Keys are delaying the field trial, Tampa Bay lawmakers are calling on the federal government to allow them to use Oxitec's GMO mosquitoes to fight Zika in Pinellas County.

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