A Key West mother's emotionally charged cyber-petition opposing the use of genetically manipulated mosquitoes to fight dengue fever, now with over 106,000 signatures, is getting global attention even as Keys officials say the idea is on indefinite hold.
Questions about potential environmental and medical consequences of such a program outnumber the answers at this point, with critics like Mila deMier, the woman circulating the petition, saying nothing should be done until more is known.
Some independent scientists with direct knowledge of the mosquito control method say potential benefits outweigh potential risks. At the same time, a bioethicist who has looked into the issue for the U.N.'s World Health Organization stresses the importance of consent by people living in affected communities. If that protocol is followed, then the presence of altered mosquitoes in the Keys could still be a long way off.
"What I see is the unknown, and how the people don't want to see themselves as a guinea pig. I think that's untrue, but that is the concern that people are worried about," said Key West Mayor Craig Cates, who voted to support a City Commission resolution opposing the release of genetically altered mosquitoes, a measure that carried unanimously. "We are a community that prides ourselves on green initiatives. Our water and air we want preserved ... that is what scared a lot of people."
Although the focus in the Keys has been dengue fever, use of the mosquitoes in other parts of the world have more directly related to the control of malaria.
The proposal under consideration by the Florida Keys Mosquito Control District would, if implemented, result in a contract with a British bioengineering firm called Oxitec. The firm has taken the aedes aegypti mosquito, which can spread dengue fever, and added to it a gene that causes the specific mosquito's offspring to die. Monroe County officials began looking at the solution after a 2009 outbreak of dengue fever, the mosquito-borne illness that can be fatal for some people, and for which there is no known treatment or cure. A deadlier form of the disease known as dengue hemorrhagic fever is also a concern. Dengue's symptoms include fever, headache, extreme pain in the joints, muscles and head, as well as a rash and bleeding from the gums.
Oxitec has released the mosquitoes in the Cayman Islands, Malaysia and Brazil, claiming promising results and touting the releases as success stories. Key West, where the initial cost for bringing in Oxitec is estimated at a half-million dollars, has proved a more resistant proving ground.
"The Oxitec mosquitoes only differ from wild mosquitoes in a single segment of introduced genetic material," a fact sheet from the Mosquito Control District states, adding that the genetically modified mosquitoes have a short lifespan, and after birth only travel about 100 to 200 yards. "If a few are transported accidentally to other islands or cities, they will die as fast as any wild mosquito and have no more or less effect on the environment, except that they will not have normal offspring."
Fear of consequences
Such assurances are not enough for deMier, a real estate sales executive who has turned concern over the bugs into a cyber-crusade.
"Nearly all experiments with genetically-modified crops have eventually resulted in unintended consequences: super weeds more resistant to herbicides, mutated and resistant insects and collateral damage to ecosystems," deMier's petition states.
The petition, directed at Gov. Rick Scott, both houses of the Legislature and several state and federal agencies, has garnered comments on the change.org site.
One commenter, identified as Seth Cason, writes that he is certain "sooner or later it will be discovered that something is horribly wrong with these mosquitoes. Genetic engineering is in its infancy. Common sense dictates that the release of an experimental organism -- one that breeds uncontrollably and will undoubtedly transmit antigens to humans and other hosts -- into the natural environment is both moronic and irreversible."
Mosquito Control Director Michael Doyle says he understands the concerns, but also has problems with the petition.
"The petition has been out for many weeks and then it just took off," he said. "It contains some generalizations, some outright mistakes and misunderstanding."
Monroe County has the project on hold until a U.S. regulatory agency, such as the Food and Drug Administration, actually acknowledges that it would fall under its jurisdiction so that proper permissions can be given. At present there is no agency charged with overseeing genetically modified mosquitoes. But one mosquito board member has noted that with no regulatory structure in place, permission isn't really needed from anyone, and that the project could go on as planned.
The test run was going to involve release of the mosquitoes in a small area of Key West.
But the City Commission resolution, along with the objections already voiced by residents such as deMier, could put a halt to any such thoughts.
"There are a variety of ethical issues that are raised from the use of genetically modified insects," wrote Darryl Macer, who has published papers on the subject for the World Health Organization and in academic journals. "But the most challenging may be the process of informed consent for individuals and communities. Each community or society needs to be given a chance to set consensus."
Macer speaks to a delicate balance, noting that the degree of potential harm from an experiment must govern the degree of zeal in seeking informed consent, and determining whether it should be from a majority of people in a community or each and every individual.
A Macer paper on the use of genetically modified insects for control of disease, released in 2005, notes in its abstract that, "The policy that each community adopts should be the product of open dialogue involving all sectors of society. It can be expected that this process will take years and not all communities will endorse genetic control approaches to insect vectors."
In an e-mail response to questions from The Citizen, Macer also noted that in his opinion "each case needs to be assessed in its own right from the exact genetic change being introduced. It might be better than the current sprays, which usually kill all mosquitoes and other insects."
Option with least harm
Another scientist with global credentials, Stuart Pimm, who lives in Key Largo, has strong feelings and opinions on the use of the generically modified creatures.
"Dengue scares me," said Pimm, Doris Duke Chair of Conservation at Duke University. "I am much more scared of dengue than I am of malaria. With dengue, there is a not a lot you can do ... I can take prophylactics against malaria. If dengue started getting hold in the Keys, the economic consequences would be devastating to the tourist industry. We are being bombed by some pretty scary chemicals. The notion is these chemicals are not as bad as they could be, but they are still pretty noxious stuff."
There is a mismatch, Pimm says, between "the problem that we have, the potential for dengue and the use of the sprays, and the problem that we might create by using genetically altered mosquitoes."