Fear Of Mosquitoes Vs. Technology

May 9, 2016

  While Florida is focusing on the prospect of the Zika virus getting a foothold in the state, the focus in the Florida Keys is on Aedes aegypti, the mosquitoes that carry the disease.

That's because the British company Oxitec has proposed its first U.S. trial of a genetically modified version of the mosquito in a Keys neighborhood. The Cayman Islands, site of the first-ever field trial six years ago, recently agreed to go forward with releasing the Oxitec mosquitoes.

In the Keys, public opposition against the trial has been vocal. An online petition has more than 166,000 signatures — more than twice the population of the island chain. And at recent meetings held by Oxitec and the Florida Keys Mosquito Control Board to answer questions about the technology, opponents filled the meeting rooms, holding signs reading "No Consent."

The FDA has reviewed the proposal to release about 3 million mosquitoes in Key Haven, a peninsula a few miles from Key West. The agency released a preliminary finding of no significant impact. The public has until May 13 to provide public comment.

The Florida Keys Mosquito Control Board, meanwhile, recently decided to allow residents of Key Haven to vote on the proposal. A majority of the board members have said they will abide by the results of the vote.

The Mosquito Control Board is elected in Monroe County, and three of the five seats are up for election this year.

Opponents to the trial of genetically modified mosquitoes include the leaders of the Florida Keys Environmental Coalition, a group started after the BP oil spill.

"You shouldn't be blinded by your perception of science and ignore the human consequences of your actions," Ed Russo, chairman of the coalition, told the Mosquito Control Board at a recent meeting. "People that live on Key Haven are not all epidemiologists and chemists and biologists. They're just people. And when they hear what's going on, they get concerned."

Scientists like Jack Newman are used to combating mosquitoes and the diseases they carry with science, not poll results. Newman grew up in Key West. As a scientist, he developed a genetic modification of yeast to brew up an affordable treatment for malaria.

He now heads a nonprofit, Zagaya, that aims to combat malaria through technology and education. He sees great promise in Oxitec's technology.

"Mosquitoes are the deadliest animal on earth," he said. "They kill more people than people kill people. Over 700,000 people die from mosquito bites every year."

Newman said he's concerned the public opposition to the trial could lead to using more pesticides, the current method for combating mosquitoes. And he's especially concerned that delaying the technology in the U.S. could hurt places like Puerto Rico, which is already dealing with dengue fever — and zika.

"The potential for this misunderstanding to cause real damage to the environment and to human health is real," Newman said, "both in the Keys but especially outside of the Keys."

Key West resident Joel Biddle knows about the damage of mosquito-borne diseases. He lives right across the street from the Key West Cemetery — and caught dengue when the cemetery was the epicenter of an outbreak six years ago.

"It was excruciating," Biddle said. "You get very sick and your body hurts, terribly."

Biddle said he was interested when he heard about the proposed trial — though taken aback that he learned about it not from the Mosquito Control Board but from a friend who read a story in a national magazine.

He's done some research and now he's skeptical enough that he came to a public meeting held by Oxitec wearing a sticker that said "NO CONSENT" — the motto of those who oppose the trial.

"I think it's a very, very promising technology, but it has to be really done right. Because once the Pandora box is really open, there's no closing it," Biddle said. "There's so many variables in nature. We're never, ever really going to be able to study it properly. But let's not rush to it."

Scientists like Newman say previous trials in Brazil and the Cayman Islands, along with the FDA review, provide plenty of evidence that the trial is safe.

"The risk of not doing anything is orders of magnitude more than the risk of doing something like what's being proposed in the Keys," Newman said.

In the Keys, the Mosquito Control Board has the final say. The board is waiting on the final ruling from the FDA and, now, a vote from Key Haven residents in August.

One board member who has been getting a lot of public input is Jill Cranney-Gage. 

She posed a question at the end of a recent 4 1/2-hour meeting that reviewed technology to combat mosquitoes, including the genetically modified option.

"If zika does come, if we do get another outbreak or there is an epidemic in the Keys, who is the public going to hold responsible? Who are they going to look at?" she said.

Cranney-Gage lives on Key Haven. And she's up for reelection this year.

"I'm going to listen to my constituents and what they want," she said. "But when we have no other source to fight mosquitoes, and there's a disease in this town, we're going to take the wrath here."

As of May 9, no zika cases had been reported in Monroe County. There haven't been any reported cases of dengue since 2010.