Florida is one of the areas in the United States most vulnerable to the spread of the Zika virus, which is carried by the Aedes aegypti mosquito. However, residents of the Florida Keys are opposed to the British company Oxitec's plan to test a genetically modified version of the mosquito in a neighborhood close to Key West.
Male Oxitec mosquitoes are engineered to create offspring carrying a defective gene that kills them before they can reproduce. In the Keys, an online petition has garnered more than 166,000 signatures, more than double its population, aimed at stopping the release of about 3 million genetically modified Oxitec mosquitoes.
While the FDA examined Oxitec's proposal and gave preliminary approval in March, the Florida Keys Mosquito Control Board decided to let residents of Key Haven vote on the proposal, and say they will adhere to the residents' wishes.
Those in favor of testing the genetically modified mosquitoes in the Keys believe that delaying technology that could slow the spread of Zika is dangerous. Those opposing the use of genetically modified insects worry about government overreach, and fear that the mosquitoes could upset the delicate ecological balance in the area and potentially impact tourism.
"The potential for this misunderstanding to cause real damage to the environment and to human health is real, both in the Keys but especially outside of the Keys," scientist Jack Newman told WLRN. Newman heads the nonprofit Zagaya, which battles malaria via technology and education.
"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.
"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.
Joe Biddle of Key West contracted dengue, a mosquito-borne disease six years ago, but still is against the Oxitec mosquitoes. "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 told WLRN.
"There's so many variables in nature," Biddle said. "We're never, ever really going to be able to study it properly. But let's not rush to it."
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