Florida Keys News
Wednesday, April 22, 2015
Bug board delays vote on contract

The bug board postponed voting on a contract Tuesday with a company wanting to do a test release of genetically modified mosquitoes on Key Haven, because it is still awaiting data from federal regulators.

Florida Keys Mosquito Control commissioners said they want to see an environmental analysis from the U.S. Food and Drug Administration before they decide to move forward on the contract with the British bio-tech company Oxitec, which would release hundreds of thousands of genetically engineered male Aedes aegypti mosquitoes a week in Key Haven during the trial.

"The environmental assessment would address many of the public's concerns," board Chair Jill Cranney-Gage told a group of vocal opponents of the release that attended Tuesday's meeting.

A handful of people, including several Key Haven residents, spoke against the release, calling it unnecessary, unsafe and unpopular among Key Haven residents.

They cited a survey conducted by local residents that found nearly 75 percent of 283 Key Haven residents surveyed opposed the test release.

"We have educated ourselves on both sides of the issue and maintain our position against it," Key Haven resident Beth Eliot said. "There are too many unknowns. I don't want to be part of an experiment and neither does my family."

The former comptroller for the mosquito control district spoke against the partnership with Oxitec, arguing there is not enough science and the agreement runs contrary to the mission of mosquito control.

"It violates the spirit of the law," former comptroller Bill Southcott said.

Key West resident Mila de Mier told the board she will sue the district if it agrees to the test and the project will be tied up in legal battles for years.

Only one person spoke in favor of the test, former Key West mayoral candidate Margaret Romero. She trusted the board would make the right decision, arguing that such methods are needed to protect the island against tropical diseases carried by mosquitoes, she said. "Keep on going," Romero told the board.

The board has approved nearly 90 percent of the contract with Oxitec but still has to approve the protocols for the release. The test release is still awaiting final approval from the U.S. Food and Drug Administration.

The company is mainly producing males, which do not bite. Their only job is to mate with females, dying shortly afterward. However, a small number of females could accidentally be released, Oxitec officials have admitted.

Oxitec has developed a method to make genetically modified male mosquitoes sterile, so when they are released and mate with female mosquitoes in the wild, the offspring die in the larval stage.

The FDA did give approval of the importation of eggs of genetically modified mosquitoes, which were brought to the United States and briefly stored in a lab at the mosquito control offices in Marathon while the government agencies inspected the facility. The bugs' eggs have since been destroyed.

Oxitec and the district is targeting Aedes aegypti mosquitoes because they carry the tropical disease dengue fever. There was a minor dengue outbreak in 2009 and into 2010 in Key West.

tohara@keysnews.com

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