Florida County Supports Controversial Genetically Modified Anti-Zika Mosquitoes

The controversial election day poll pitted cutting-edge science against GMO fears.

Nov 10 2016, 8:16pm

Miami-Dade mosquito control inspector Yasser "Jazz" Compagines sprays a chemical mist into a storm drain, as a tour vessel passes by at left, Tuesday, Aug. 23, 2016, in Miami Beach, Fla. Image: Alan Diaz/AP

Zika continues to be an issue in South Florida, and Florida Keys voters supported a controversial strategy to use genetically modified mosquitoes to beat back the virus. Strong residential opposition led to the item being added to the county's Election Day ballot to gauge overall opinion, but the election-time results proved otherwise.

A non-binding opinion poll about whether genetically modified mosquitoes should be released to kill off the mosquitoes that spread the Zika virus earned just over 57 percent of the countywide vote. However, a parallel opinion poll done in Key Haven, Florida, where the mosquitoes would be released only earned 34 percent of the vote.

These controversial mosquitoes were created by Oxitec, a United Kingdom-based company, and cannot produce living offspring. When these male mosquitoes are released, they'll breed with Aedes aegypti females (the type that spread Zika, but also dengue and yellow fever) and while the resulting eggs will hatch, the larva will die soon after. The male mosquitoes that are released can't bite people because only the females are blood-suckers.

While both polls weren't intended to enact legislation, the Florida Keys Mosquito Control District planned to use the polls as a measuring stick when deciding whether to release the mosquitoes. It's unclear what they'll decide going forward, but it's no question that South Florida is still grappling with the impact of a virus that can cause debilitating and deadly birth defects in pregnancies.

A decision will be made by the local mosquito control board on Nov. 19.

These mosquitoes were proposed months ago as a way to beat back the Zika virus that began spreading in South Florida this summer. Researchers added in a gene to these mosquitoes that kills them soon after hatching. In order to stay alive into adulthood, they have to be regularly fed an antidote while developing—one that doesn't exist outside of laboratories, according to the company.

Proponents of the measure said it would be a pesticide-free way to reduce Aedes aegypti mosquitoes in the Keys and South Florida in general.

Read more: Zika Is Driving Miami Into Debt

But opponents are concerned about the unforeseen consequences of tinkering with genetics and releasing those bugs into neighborhoods and cities. While opponents aren't specific about their concerns, they're mostly fearful that the decision is a risky scientific experiment due to the fact that these mosquitoes haven't been tested anywhere else in the U.S.

Oxitec has used these mosquitoes in Brazil and the Grand Cayman Islands, the company stated.

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