Genetically Modified Mosquitos Rub Keys Residents The Wrong Way

May 20, 2016

A British biotech company wants to release genetically modified mosquitos in Florida to slow the spread of the Zika virus. The fate of the program rests with the small community of Key Haven, and many residents are skeptical.

Credit Oxitec

Beth Eliot is a resident of Key Haven, a small community of about 1,000 people, just north of Key West. Eliot doesn’t want genetically modified mosquitoes in her neighborhood. And she’s not alone.

“If you drive through the neighborhood of Key Haven you will see signs throughout the neighborhood that say ‘No consent to the release of genetically modified mosquitoes’. There are yard signs throughout the neighborhood,” she said.

The British company Oxitec wants to release male Aedes aegypti mosquitoes in Key Haven. The so-called self-limiting insects mate with wild populations, but their offspring die before reaching maturity, slowing the spread of diseases like Zika. The company says trials in Brazil, Panama and the Cayman Islands have cut mosquito populations by 90%. But for many, genetic modification brings to mind mutant bugs and Frankenstein’s monster.

“There is a hysterical response by a lot of people, and there is even sometimes a religious response. Some people feel like that steps on the toes of God, and you’re playing God and you shouldn’t do that,” says the University of Florida's Paul Linser.

Linser studies insects that transmit diseases, and he’s a member of the state’s mosquito control council. He says, if anything, the program is only a short-term solution, but it is scientifically sound.

“So I don’t think there’s anything to be afraid of in using this technology, if it’s economical. And I don’t know what they’re planning to charge to do this. It could be effective in bringing the numbers of aegypti down, and perhaps mitigating the problems we have with dengue, and the potential problems that we have with local transmission of Zika,” Linser said.

Still, there is real resistance to genetic modification, and not just in the Keys. Non-GMO labels can be spotted in specialty grocery stores across the country, next to USDA organic and gluten free symbols. While genetically modified crops can affect native ecosystems, many in the scientific community say GMOs are safe. Some argue that genetic modification is as old as human agriculture, that the process brings us modern corn, and Chihuahuas instead of wolves.

“There are concerns with any kind of intervention in the environment. By the way, Florida is full of genetically modified trees! We call them hybridized citrus trees, right? Nobody got their knickers in a twist over that,” said the University of Miami's Ken Goodman.

Credit Oxitec / stopthemosquito.com

Goodman directs the Institute for Bioethics and Health Policy at the University of Miami. He believes public health shouldn’t be steered by a fear of the unknown, and he worries that’s what’s happening in the Keys.

“So one of the challenges of course is with any kind of research like this is that it does turn an entire community into participants in research. Which is why it would really be nice to obtain community consent, right? The challenge, what makes the case of the genetically modified mosquitoes in the Keys so interesting is we really want consent, but the lack of consent is driven by ignorance, not evidence,” he said.

The FDA has given preliminary approval, but back in Key Haven, Beth Eliot says she’s still not satisfied. She wants more research conducted, before her backyard becomes a testing ground.

“The FDA has made mistakes before and drugs have been recalled. But when you look at the release of 22 million mosquitoes, if something does go awry, how do you recall 22 million mosquitoes? You can’t. What’s done is done,” she said.

Monroe County Officials say they’ll let the public decide the fate of the trial. Voters throughout the Keys will have a say on the August 30th ballot.