Public to have voice on genetically modified mosquitoes in Keys

Despite FDA approval, non-binding referendum will go to voters in November

KEY LARGO, Fla. – Genetically modified mosquitoes are being harvested in a Florida Keys laboratory with the intent that they'll be released into the community, but not everyone is happy about it.

"We're going to be the first ones that they can write reports about," protester Mara Daly said. "I don't feel comfortable with it."

Daly is talking about Oxitec, the British biotechnology company that created the mutant bug that could soon be released in the Key Haven area. It would be the first use of these mosquitoes in the U.S., but the public will have an opportunity to give its opinion on the November ballot.

"The only effect we've seen from releasing these mosquitoes is a reduction in the mosquito population and a significant one," Oxitec researcher Derric Nimmo said.

Nimmo said his company has used the technique in other countries with great success. He said the altered bug, which doesn't bite, mates with wild females.

"When they do, they also pass on the self-limiting gene and the marker gene, and the offspring die," Nimmo said.

Having received approval by the Food and Drug Administration, the Florida Keys Mosquito Control District was set to go forward with a local trial. That is until those with concerns demanded a ballot referendum to have their voices heard.

The chairman of the mosquito control board said he's all for it. The Aedes aegypti mosquito, which carries diseases like the Zika virus and dengue fever, is a tough bug to control otherwise.

"We're controlling, at best, 50 percent of it, and experts say you have to have 90 percent, at least, control to be sure that you're not going to have local transmission," Phil Goodman said.

But Daly said she'll continue to protest.

"Our blood is being used in this trial with no consent whatsoever, with no oversight from the government," Mara said.

The referendum is non-binding, so the district can go forward even if voters say they don't want the mosquitoes released. Three members of the board have already agreed to vote against it if the majority of voters oppose it.

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