Two storage rooms at the Florida Keys Mosquito Control District's Marathon building are being converted into a temporary laboratory to raise genetically modified mosquitoes.
If the FDA approves, the Keys could become the first in the U.S. to release the mosquitos, which are intended to reduce the population of aedes aegypti mosquitoes that carry diseases including dengue fever, malaria and chikungunya.
The British company Oxitec is building the lab and would handle the raising and releasing of the mosquitos, pending approval from the FDA and the Florida Keys Mosquito Control District. The current plan is for a test release of genetically engineered male mosquitoes sometime next spring in the Key Haven neighborhood on a small peninsula about five miles from Key West. The idea is the male mosquitos would pass along a lethal gene, making offspring nonviable.
The Keys haven't had a reported case of dengue since 2010. But Stephen Smith, chairman of the elected board that oversees mosquito control in the Keys, said the release might be necessary as a preventive measure against dengue and chikungunya, which recently appeared on the South Florida mainland.
"I’m not preaching doom and gloom. I just want us to be ready," Smith said. "It’s been successfully tested in the Caribbean. It’s been tested in Brazil. It’s been tested in the Cayman Islands with great results. It’s a tool that we can keep in our arsenal and maybe we won’t have to use at all."
The Keys Mosquito Control District is planning public meetings with representatives from Oxitec and the FDA in November for Key Haven residents and in December for Key West. The district is distributing a flyer with information for Key Haven residents this week and has a section on its website about the project.
Some Keys residents have already raised concerns about the plan.
"I think that there are too many unknowns. When you go messing with DNA, you just don’t know what you’re going to get," said Jody Smith Williams of Key West. She said she doesn't think a release of genetically modified mosquitos is necessary with no dengue reported in the Keys for the last four years.
"The only real research is coming from Oxitec," she said. "Even in the places where they claim success with reducing mosquitos, there isn’t really data on whether dengue has reduced."