A project to release genetically engineered mosquitoes in Key West won't happen unless a federal or state regulatory agency will oversee it, the mosquito control officials and a private company have agreed.
The Florida Keys Mosquito Control District has been struggling to find an agency to oversee the use of genetically altered mosquitoes to combat disease, in this case, dengue fever. The technology so far has only been used in agriculture in the United States.
The district and the British-based Oxitec company held a town hall meeting Thursday night, and faced strong opposition and tough questions from Keys residents about the genetically engineered mosquitoes.
Key West resident Haig Jacobs referred to them as "Robo-Franken mosquitoes" and asked Oxitec representatives, "When is this going to stop, and when is life sacred?"
Oxitec alters male mosquitoes to be "sterile," so when they are released and mate with a female mosquito in the wild, her offspring will die in the larval stage, according to www.oxitec.com.
Federal officials from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Department of Agriculture, Fish & Wildlife Service, Environmental Protection Agency, Food and Drug Administration and other agencies all say they do not have jurisdiction.
Jacobs also asked about natural ways of controlling mosquitoes, possibly by introducing more dragonflies or other predators. Others raised concerns about mutations and a potential impact on the ecosystem and food chain.
Some people questioned Oxitec's success with releasing genetically altered mosquitoes for the sole purposes of eradicating the Aedes aegypti mosquito, which carriers dengue fever. They asked for peer-reviewed science rating Oxitec's success with past releases and research on whether it would be successful here.
Still others questioned investing in the technology as there has not been a case of dengue fever in the Keys since 2010.
The district and Oxitec had planned to introduce the mosquitoes in Old Town Key West later this year.
It's not cheap to rear and release genetically modified mosquitoes; it would cost the district $250,000 a year. If successful, though, it would be less expensive than the district's current program to eradicate dengue fever, which is about $1 million to $1.5 million a year, according to Mosquito Control Executive Director Michael Doyle.
Doyle also argued that using the genetically altered mosquitoes would also make the district less dependent on pesticides.