GM mosquitoes on track in West Bay trial

Voters in the Florida Keys to weigh in on a genetically modified mosquito test there

Oxitec's Renaud Lacroix shows how the genetically modified mosquitoes are raised in a lab in George Town. - Photo: Charles Duncan

Residents of the Florida Keys go to the polls Nov. 8, deciding not just between presidential candidates Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton, but casting a vote on whether or not to test genetically modified mosquitoes on one small island near Key West.

As voters in Florida debate the first trial of GM mosquitoes in the United States, researchers with Oxitec in the Cayman Islands are seeing more mosquitoes with the marker that shows the genetic modifications are taking hold with local mosquitoes.

British-based Oxitec started the GM mosquito trial in West Bay over the summer, releasing about 300,000 male Aedes aegypti mosquitoes a week. The idea is that Oxitec’s males will mate with the wild females and the genetic modification means the next generation will not survive to adulthood.

Oxitec’s Cayman project manager Renaud Lacroix, in an interview last week, said testing in the 300-acre research area showed that about 30 percent of the Aedes aegypti larvae had the genetic modification, up from about 10 percent in early September. The target is 50 percent, he said, and when Oxitec and the Mosquito Research and Control Unit can keep that level for four weeks, that was when previous studies have shown the A. aegypti population can drop by more than 90 percent.

“We expect a reduction in early 2017,” he said.

During the dry season the mosquito population drops naturally, but Mr. Lacroix said they are not measuring total numbers, but instead comparing the numbers to a neighboring area in West Bay with a similar mosquito population.

The hope, he said, is to try to keep the population as low as possible through the dry season and that will help keep the number of mosquitoes down when the rainy season starts next year.

“West Bay has one of the highest populations we’ve seen” of Aedes aegypti, he said, but “that will show that we are up to the challenge.”

Oxitec’s current contract with government and the MRCU is up at the end of April, but he hopes that with good results in getting rid of the Zika-carrying mosquitoes that contract can be extended.

Decision time for Florida Keys

Voters in Monroe County, Florida will get to have a say in whether Oxitec can test the GM mosquitoes on Key Haven, a tiny island near Key West. The county will have a pair of nonbinding votes on the GM mosquito test, one for Key Haven residents and another for the rest of the county, according to the Monroe County Supervisor of Elections website.

Monroe County covers the Florida Keys and a large section of Everglades National Park.

The countywide ballot poll asks, “Are you in favor of the Florida Keys Mosquito Control District conducting an effectiveness trial in Monroe County, Florida, using genetically modified mosquitoes to suppress an invasive mosquito that carries mosquito-borne diseases?”

Voters in Key Haven will be asked specifically about the release of GM mosquitoes in their town.

The election will be Nov. 8. The election news website FiveThirtyEight reports that three of the five board members in charge of the Keys Mosquito Control District will vote on the test based on the results of the ballot poll.

The debate is heating up, with protests and competing ad campaigns. The Florida Keys News reported recently that Intrexon, Oxitec’s U.S. parent company, donated $100,000 to a new political action committee to pay for an “education awareness campaign” to sway voters into saying yes to the nonbinding ballot poll.

The United States Food and Drug Administration gave Oxitec the green light in August to test the GM mosquitoes, issuing what’s called a “finding of no significant impact.” Federal officials require a U.S. trial before Oxitec can get final FDA approval to use the GM mosquitoes there.

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