Despite opposition, Florida Keys moves forward with genetically modified mosquitoes

MONROE COUNTY, Fla. – The feared GMO mosquitoes are not going away. Opponents of the technology fear the date of the release in the Florida Keys is getting closer, and they are not ready for the possible repercussions of the experiment.

The fight over whether or not to release genetically modified mosquitoes in Monroe County has been going on for almost a decade. Barry Wray said the mosquito control team’s contractor wants to deliver the first batch in April.

Wray, the executive director of the Florida Keys Environmental Coalition, said he doesn’t believe there is enough evidence to prove that the technology is safe. He said there is a need for independent scientific investigation.

“You don’t really know what the long-term outcomes could be or how to quantify those risks, and if you can’t do that scientifically, then you don’t know how to responsibly mitigate it or detect if something is going awry,” Wray said.

The contractor, UK-based biotechnology company Oxitec, promises the modified non-biting male mosquitoes could put an end to problems with the Aedes aegypti, also known as the yellow fever mosquito. The mosquito spreads dengue fever, Zika, and chikungunya.

The public health efforts are so controversial the Florida Keys Mosquito Control District hired Chad Huff as the public education and information officer. The team includes ground inspectors who deal with mosquito larvae on the ground and aviation staff who spray insecticides.

“Oxitec, the company that we’re working with, has done this overseas, and they’ve seen 60, 70, 80, and even 95% suppression in some areas,” Huff said about the technology marketed as nontoxic and environmentally sustainable.

When Oxitec’s mosquitoes mate with wild females, they produce females that do not reproduce and males that carry a “self-limiting gene” that will be passed along to half of the offspring. The mosquitoes also have a “fluorescent marker gene” to make them easier to track.

“There are less (fewer) female mosquitos that actually do the biting and there are less (fewer) female mosquitos that actually do the breeding,” Huff said, adding “It’s being tried on a limited basis in the Florida Keys.”

Over time, Huff said, this hurts the population. There is less of a need to buy insecticides to kill flying mosquitoes and the larvae that hatch from eggs. According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the tech has been “successfully used” in Brazil, the Cayman Islands, Panama, and India.

The supporters of the experiment stand behind approval from the Department of Agriculture and the Environmental Protection Agency. The EPA is also allowing a release in Texas to evaluate how effective the technology is.

There is plenty of skepticism. Nearly 240,000 signed a petition against it on Mara Daly, a mother who owns a hair salon, said at first she thought it was a good idea, but when she learned more about it, she changed her mind.

“I do not feel comfortable having my child in the environment where up to three-quarters of a billion mosquitos will be released in our environment,” Daly said.

Last month, Rep. Carlos Gimenez wrote a letter to the EPA requesting independent corroboration that no genetically modified female mosquitoes will be released. He also requested more information about the impacts on the ecosystem.

Opponents also have fears about the impact that the program will have on the local food chain. The list of mosquito predators includes bats, birds, fish, frogs, turtles, dragonflies, damselflies, and spiders.

Torres contributed to this report from Miami.

About the Authors:

In January 2017, Hatzel Vela became the first local television journalist in the country to move to Cuba and cover the island from the inside. During his time living and working in Cuba, he covered some of the most significant stories in a post-Fidel Castro Cuba. 

The Emmy Award-winning journalist joined the Local 10 News team in 2013. She wrote for the Miami Herald for more than 9 years and won a Green Eyeshade Award.