Aedes aegypti
Aedes aegypti | wikimedia

Florida Keys Voters Approve "Frankenskeeters"

Voters in the Florida Keys approved using genetically altered mosquitoes, which some have dubbed “Frankenskeeters,” to battle the Zika virus and other serious diseases.

Though the referendum in Monroe County was nonbinding, the Florida Keys Mosquito Control District is now moving forward with a trial run using genetically modified mosquitoes developed by a British company, Oxitec.

“The referendum showed us that the majority of voters in the county [58%] were in favor of the project,” the chairman of the district, Phil Goodman, told AMI Newswire. “We have every confidence this will work.”

Zika transmissions in Florida continue to climb. Zika cases statewide number 1,169, the Florida Department of Health reported this past week. More than 150 of those cases involved pregnant women who are suspected to have contracted the Zika virus.

Across the United States, the number of travel-related Zika cases – as opposed to cases that result from transmission by local mosquitoes – has reached more than 4,000, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported last week.

While the Oxitec trial would be the first use of genetically modified mosquitoes in the United States, other regions of Florida have also expressed interest in using biological methods to fight mosquito-borne diseases rather than relying solely on chemical spraying, Goodman said. Eighty percent of Florida lawmakers have signed a petition to the Food and Drug Administration for permission to use the GM mosquitoes in their districts, he said.

“The voters of Monroe County have clearly spoken,” said Oxitec chief executive officer Hadyn Parry in a prepared statement. “By approving this referendum, they have highlighted the need for new and targeted solutions that will fight against the invasive mosquitoes that carry Zika, dengue and other dangerous viruses.”

The company’s mosquitoes – all male – can be released close to local mosquito populations so that they breed with the natives. In turn, the offspring are programmed to die off before they reach adulthood, driving down the population over time.

Trials of the company’s insects in Brazil, Panama and the Cayman Islands led to reductions of local Aedes aegypti mosquito populations of more than 90 percent, Oxitec reported. This species of mosquito has been linked to the spread of the Zika virus, which can cause birth defects when contracted by pregnant women.

The mosquito district is poised to approve an agreement with Oxitec for a trial mosquito release on Saturday, Goodman said. One problem, however, is that in a second nonbinding vote held in the Key Haven community on Nov. 8, voters opposed the use of genetically modified mosquitoes by a 2-to-1 margin. Key Haven had previously been designated as the location for release of the GM mosquitoes.

As a result of the opposition in Key Haven, the district will work to find an alternative location for the GM mosquito release, Goodman said. The FDA would have to sign off on a new mosquito trial site, but Goodman expects that test could occur as early as January 2017, if everything falls into place.

Opponents of the Oxitec mosquito release have voiced fears about the “Frankenskeeters” permanently altering the gene pool and causing unintended consequences in the local environment. As the populations of the Aedes aegypti mosquito go down, another mosquito species, such as Aedes albopictus, could move in to fill the void, leading to similar health problems, opponents have said.

But the Aedes aegypti remains the No. 1 mosquito problems, said Goodman, since this non-native species is known to easily transmit serious diseases to humans. Aedes albopictus, on the other hand, is less efficient in spreading disease to humans, he said.

Even so, genetic modification technologies are being developed that could target Aedes albopictus as well, Goodman said.

A report from the Competitive Enterprise Institute this month concluded that federal policies that regulate both pesticide use and the development of new mosquito-fighting technologies are hampering the war on vector-driven disease in the United States. FDA approval of genetically modified mosquitoes in the Florida Keys has been slow, said the report, which recommends giving local vector-control officials a free hand to use new pesticides and biological technologies to battle Zika and other diseases.

The mosquito district is confident that the Oxitec technology will be successful in reducing the mosquito population in the Florida Keys. “We are just loaded with scientists here,” Goodman said. “They have studied it for years and found no significant impact."