A female Aedes aegypti mosquito acquires a blood meal from a human host in 2006.

Gene-modified mosquitoes clear a key hurdle

The release of genetically modified mosquitoes in the Florida Keys cleared a significant hurdle Friday when the U.S. Food and Drug Administration announced they pose no significant environmental danger.

The preliminary findings, to be published in the Federal Register, will be open for public comment for the next 30 days. But the initial federal review likely clears the way for a long-delayed field trial by British producer Oxitec in the tiny affluent neighborhood of Key Haven a mile east of Key West.

“The Aedes aegypti mosquito represents a significant threat to human health, and in many countries has been spreading Zika, dengue and chikungunya viruses,” he said. “This mosquito is non-native to the U.S. and difficult to control, with the best available methods only able to reduce the population by up to 50 percent, which is simply not enough.”

Since the company has already outfitted a lab in Marathon for production, the company could move quickly to start tests if local officials back them, he said.

But some residents in the Keys, backed by opponents of the genetic modification industry, have fought bitterly to stop the release, mounting a petition that collected 160,000 signatures.

“People just don’t want to be guinea pigs,” said former nurse and real estate agent Mila De Mier, who started the petition.

Pitched as a safer, more affordable way of battling the pests, Oxitec’s modified male mosquitoes are engineered to produce offspring with a kill-switch, or defective gene that kills them. The offspring also bear a florescent marker gene so larvae can be identified when inspectors conduct mosquito counts and gauge the progress of the program.

De Mier, however, said no tests have linked the release of mosquitoes to a reduction in disease and argues that other methods used by the Florida Keys Mosquito Control District to combat Aedes aegypti have been successful. She also likens the tests to clinical trials and believes Oxitec ethically needs to obtain permission from residents.

“You cannot even justify a trial,” she said.

If after the public comment period the FDA approves the test, the district’s board must still approve an agreement with Oxitec, said district spokeswoman Beth Ranson. The issue is not on the board’s Tuesday meeting agenda, although she said it’s likely to come up for discussion, but not a vote.

“So there’s still a couple of steps left,” she said.

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