Last week's Town Hall meeting to discuss an experimental release of genetically modified (GM) mosquitoes in Key West was largely a sales pitch by Oxitec, a company with everything to gain by breaking into the U.S. market for GM mosquitoes and using our Key West backyards as a test site. Fair enough, that's what for-profit companies do. It was the lack of any alternate expert scientific opinion that was troubling to me and many others.
Plenty of questions from citizens were posed to Mosquito Control and Oxitec. Unfortunately, time ran out before everyone's questions were addressed and the answers seemed to beget more questions than satisfaction.
If any citizens were eager for this experiment to go forward, they were silent. All comments and questions advocated more research, more evidence, exploration of alternative methods or an outright ban on this experiment in our city. While the imminent threat that the Mosquito Control District would proceed with the mosquito release "with or without permits" has now been pushed back until some kind of permit is obtained, the quest marches on.
Some of the lingering thoughts and questions I took away from the meeting:
• Dengue fever has been absent from Key West since 2010, which indicates the current methods of control and public education are working. What's the rush for this radical approach?
• Where is the third-party, peer-reviewed research on effectiveness and safety of GM mosquitoes other than Oxitec's own claims of success?
• The presence of tetracycline improves the survival rate of the GM mosquitoes. Will tests for tetracycline in the local environment be conducted?
• Aedes aegypti are urban mosquitoes and, according to Oxitec, do not travel more than a couple hundred feet. This is supposed to alleviate fears that surviving GMs (it was acknowledged that there would be some number of survivors) would escape their designated test area. If they don't travel, then how did they get here in the first place? As someone astutely pointed out, who hasn't been trapped in a car with a mosquito?
• What about alternative methods? Ovi-traps with black pepper pellets were used in the Philippines in 2011 with a reported 80-percent reduction in the Aedes aegypti mosquito population, similar to Oxitec's reported success rate in the Cayman Islands. Unlike the Cayman Islands, the Philippines trial also reported a dramatic decrease in dengue in those areas.
Mosquito Control called its own experiment with ovi-traps a couple of years ago "a fiasco." Perhaps they didn't use the best attractant or monitor the traps properly; maybe this technology has evolved since then.
• Will future public meetings include local experts from Florida universities who offer a different point of view?
• It's a vaguely stated concern, yes, but we don't know what we don't know! We truly don't know what the long-term consequences will be of introducing an invasive species with altered DNA into the environment.
Nearly all experiments with genetically-modified crops have eventually resulted in unintended consequences: superweeds more resistant to herbicides, mutated and resistant insects and collateral damage to ecosystems. A news story last week reported that the monarch butterfly population is down by half in areas where Roundup Ready GM crops are doused with ultra-high levels of herbicides that wipe out the monarch's favorite milkweed plant.
Why would we not expect GM insects, especially those that bite humans, to have similar unintended negative consequences? Will the more virulent Asian tiger mosquito that also carries dengue fill the void left by reductions in A. aegypti? Will the dengue virus mutate (think antibiotic resistant MRSA) and become even more dangerous?
• Will the public be able to stop this program from happening if we don't want it? We were told that "public opinion would be taken into account." That doesn't answer the question and gives the impression that the project is a done deal as soon as a permit is granted.
Mosquito Control director Michael Doyle seems to be a very knowledgeable and reasonable man. A video of the meeting is posted on keysmosquito.org along with a transcript of questions from the meeting and those sent in afterward. I commend Mosquito Control for making these available to the public and I encourage everyone to take time to have a look.
We were promised more discussion as permits are pursued. We need that, along with input from a broad scientific community, independent proof that there will be no adverse effects to the environment or human health and answers to many other questions. Until then, please pack up your dog and pony show and go home.