In dueling votes over a proposed trial of Oxitec’s genetically modified mosquitoes, voters across one Florida county supported releasing the insects, while voters in the town earmarked for the project rejected holding the trial there.
The town of Key Haven, on a small island in the Florida Keys voted overwhelmingly Tuesday against the proposal, but voters in Monroe County, which covers the Florida Keys, supported holding the trial somewhere in the county.
The ballot questions in the Florida Keys are not binding, but a majority of members on the Florida Keys Mosquito Control Board said they would respect the will of the voters.
Local news reports put county voters’ approval of the genetically modified mosquito trial at 58 percent in the unofficial results available Wednesday. In Key Haven, 418 voters rejected the trial and 212 voted in favor.
The trial Oxitec proposed in Key Haven is similar to the ongoing releases in West Bay where the company, along with Cayman’s Mosquito Research and Control Unit, has been releasing millions of GM mosquitoes in an effort to kill off the population of Aedes aegypti, the mosquitoes responsible for spreading Zika, dengue and other viruses.
Responding to questions Wednesday, Oxitec’s Renaud Lacroix and MRCU Director Bill Petrie wrote, “The nine-month public health program, which began at the end of July this year, is showing extremely favorable results, with fluorescent larvae showing that the GM male Aedes aegypti mosquitoes are successfully mating with Aedes aegypti females in the wild.”
In the joint statement, they note, “The U.S. has its own system to regulate such projects. After this non-binding vote, it is now up to the mosquito control board of the Florida Keys Mosquito Control District as to what the next steps are. Here in the Cayman Islands, we followed due process with our own regulatory bodies.”
Oxitec’s mosquito releases in Cayman began over the summer after a failed 11th-hour lawsuit tried to stop the releases. In the weeks after the GM mosquito releases, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration issued a “finding of no significant impact” on the technology, clearing a significant federal hurdle in Oxitec’s bid to be able to market the GM mosquitoes commercially in the U.S.
With federal approval in hand, Oxitec still needed approval from state authorities in Florida and local officials. Tuesday’s vote does not rule out testing the GM mosquitoes in Monroe County, which includes the Florida Keys, but it likely means that the company will not be able to test the mosquitoes on Key Haven.
Oxitec and the MRCU have been releasing about 300,000 male Aedes aegypti mosquitoes a week in a 300-acre area in West Bay since late July. Mr. Lacroix said recently that the GM males – he calls them “friendly Aedes aegypti” – are successfully mating with wild females, and the genetic markers are showing up more and more in larvae in the test area. The genetic modifications mean the next generation will not survive to adulthood.
Mr. Lacroix said, “We are very pleased with the progress as we have been successfully maintaining the level of females mating with the ‘friendly’ males. As we enter the colder, dryer season, we are expecting to increase the proportion of females mated with the ‘friendly’ males and anticipate a reduction in the wild population of Aedes aegypti in the first half of 2017.”
He said the ongoing releases in West Bay are on track with earlier trials showing more than 90-percent reductions in local Aedes aegypti populations. He hopes to reach that goal by early next year, he explained, to go into the start of the rainy season with as few Aedes aegypti as possible.
This story has been modified from the original.