A test release of genetically modified mosquitoes on Key Haven could happen as early as February. And the British-based Oxitec company will begin building a mosquito-rearing facility in Marathon later this month.
Oxitec proposes to alter male mosquitoes to make them "sterile," so when they are released and mate with a female mosquito in the wild, her offspring would die in the larval stage.
The Florida Keys Mosquito Control District has agreed to allow Oxitec to start construction of a mosquito-rearing facility at its Marathon office in anticipation of the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) approving a test release of the genetically altered mosquitoes.
The 400 square-foot facility will be built in a storage room at the district's office at a cost of $20,000, said Derric Nimmo, Oxitec's head of mosquito research, and Michael Doyle, Mosquito Control District executive director.
In advance of the release, Oxitec and mosquito control officials will hold a town hall meeting in Key West to solicit public input and provide information on the protocols of the release, Doyle and Nimmo said. The meeting is tentatively scheduled for Dec. 4 at the Harvey Government Center in Key West. FDA officials have been invited to attend.
"We want to hear from the public," Doyle said.
Oxitec has answered all of the questions FDA has asked of the company, and it is now awaiting a letter of "no objection" from the federal agency, Nimmo said.
"We will not release any mosquitoes until we get that letter," Nimmo said.
The FDA is being especially careful, Doyle said Friday.
In addition to FDA approval, Oxitec needs the Centers for Disease Control's approval to import the mosquitoes from England, and approval of the rearing facility to make sure the mosquitoes can't escape, Minno and Doyle said.
The mosquito control agency and Oxitec are looking at Key Haven as a possible testing site. As a peninsula, it would be easy to monitor and control the mosquitoes there, Doyle said.
A Mosquito Control District survey of 249 Key Haven residents -- some 56 percent of its population -- found that 43 percent of residents supported the release; 16 percent strongly supported it; 32 percent were neutral; 6 percent opposed it; and 3 percent were strongly opposed, Doyle said.
As part of the trial, and in a five- to six-month period, Oxitec would release approximately 3 million to 4 million sterilized male aedes aegypti mosquitoes, Nimmo said. Oxitec argues that the use of genetically engineered mosquitoes is safer than using pesticides, and in this case, targets a specific breed of mosquito not native to the Keys
Mila DeMier, Key West resident and mother of three boys, has concerns about the impacts of the release of the mosquitoes. She is pushing to make sure the FDA looks at intended and unintended consequences, she said.
"The last thing we need is a biological Pandora's Box, or a real-life Jurassic Park experience," DeMier said.
DeMier has met with FDA officials in Washington, D.C., to make sure that if a release occurs, all of the requisite testing and financial accountability is in place to cover unanticipated adverse effects to the environment and to humans, she said.
DeMier submitted more than 112,000 signed petitions to the FDA in opposition to the release. She has retained the McKee Law Group based in Weston in case she has to file a lawsuit to stop the release, she said.
DeMier worries about the unknowns, and what will replace the niche that is created by the elimination of the aedes aegypti mosquito, she said. She wants to know what microbes, insects or other animals are damaged in its life cycle when the mosquito is eliminated, she said. She also wants to know what crossover of genetic material or chemistry occurs if even a few affected female mosquitoes grow to maturity and commence to breed.
"Mila's cause is her family's cause and her family includes her friends in her beloved Keys community," attorney Robert J. McKee said. "There is a right way and a dangerously wrong way to introduce a previously never existing life form into an environment which has never seen it, nor had a chance to react to it. Many real biological factors must be evaluated before a release of this new organism into a real open environment."