A controversial proposal to release genetically engineered mosquitoes has been met with some very vocal opposition in the past, but a new study has found that a majority of Florida Keys residents support using the technology.
A study by North Carolina State University professor Michael Cobb found that 60 percent of Key West residents surveyed "supports the [Florida Keys Mosquito Control District] to use (genetically engineered) technologies for mosquito control."
Twenty-three percent of those surveyed did not support the method and 17 percent were neutral on the issue, the study found.
When asked how safe genetically engineered technology is, 13 percent of Key Westers thought it was "very safe" and 53 percent thought it was "safe," the survey stated. However, 11 percent thought it was "very unsafe," while 23 percent thought it was "unsafe."
Keyswide, 61 percent supported using genetically engineered technology in Key West to control Aedes aegypti mosquitoes, which can carry dengue fever. Eighteen percent said they were opposed to the technology and 21 percent remained neutral.
The study was done in two parts. In the first segment, 614 people Keyswide returned surveys that were mailed to them in January. In the final phase, 205 Key West residents were interviewed at their homes between Jan. 1 and 5.
The surveys were done because the British-based company Oxitec and the Mosquito Control District are proposing to partner to do a test release of genetically engineered Aedes aegypti mosquitoes in effort to eradicate the species. An outbreak of dengue fever occurred three years ago and caused a minor health crisis.
Oxitec did not help fund the study, but the Mosquito Control District did. The district told the researchers what type of information it was looking for, but the agency did not write the questions, District Executive Director Michael Doyle said.
"I think there is a great awareness of this technology in your community," Oxitec Chief Executive Officer Hadyn Parry said of the study. "I think people understand there are benefits to it (genetically engineered technology). It's environmentally benign. You are targeting one insect that spreads disease and is an invasive species."
Oxitec and Mosquito Control are still awaiting federal government approval to do a test release of the genetically engineered mosquitoes.
The U.S. Food and Drug Administration is the lead government agency overseeing the permitting of the potential release, Parry said. The agency is coordinating with the U.S. Department of Agriculture, Centers for Disease Control and Environmental Protection Agency. The Food and Drug Administration is currently soliciting questions and concerns about the release from the three other government agencies.
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.
If approved, the district would release the genetically engineered lab-raised mosquitoes in Key West or possibly Stock Island, Doyle said.
Potentially millions of mosquitoes would be released during a six-month period, starting in the spring, Doyle said.