The U.S. Food and Drug Administration is the federal agency overseeing plans by the British genetic engineering firm Oxitec to release altered mosquitoes in the Keys, part of a plan to head off outbreaks of dengue fever.
But with little done so far in regard to the project, says Florida Keys Mosquito Control District Director Michael Doyle, the use of any such mosquitoes -- if it occurs -- is anything but imminent.
"It could be years," Doyle said. "That's partly because time is needed to do it correctly, and everyone wants to do it correctly. The FDA is asking Oxitec for data and information, so that's a very good sign."
By a good sign, Doyle said, he meant that any regulatory decisions made on the proposed project will have been carefully researched.
"FDA does not comment on the status of applications," said agency spokeswoman Morgan Liscinsky. "However, we can confirm that Oxitec has opened a file with FDA. FDA is the agency regulating Oxitec's genetically engineered ... mosquito."
The Aedes aegypti mosquito can carry dengue fever.
The lab-raised, genetically engineered ones limit the ability of their wild brethren to reproduce.
"It is not possible to predict when any decisions will be made, but no genetically engineered animals of any species that FDA regulates will be released in the United States, including for the purposes of field trials, without appropriate regulatory oversight," Liscinsky said.
Doyle will give an update on the situation today to the Mosquito Control board.
The proposal for release of the genetically altered mosquitoes has drawn international attention. A local Realtor and mother of three boys, Mila de Mier, circulated an online petition opposing the experiment through the website change.org, and so far has collected 115,000 cyber-signatures.
She does not trust assurances that any project is still a long way off.
"If something goes wrong, who is going to be liable for loss of business here?" she said. "When the business is lost, are we going to tell people, please come here 2 for 1, be a part of the experiment?"
Even if the regulatory process moves smoothly and quickly, Doyle said, there are a number of factors to consider before a green light could be given.
In addition to FDA approval and approval by the Florida Keys Mosquito Control District, Doyle said, there are other factors that will add delays.
A place to grow eggs would have to be constructed, he said. And officials would have to determine the timing of a release, if one is ever authorized.
"To be done right, it really should be done in the spring, when the natural mosquito population is very low," said Doyle, adding that this spring would be difficult, if not impossible, considering the preliminary regulatory work to be done. "So you would not want to do it in mid-summer when there are also millions of wild mosquitoes you are trying to suppress."