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Florida Needs a New Place to Release Genetically-Modified Anti-Zika Mosquitoes

The local community voted against the experiment, but the government has decided to move forward somewhere else.

The hunt is on for a willing community to welcome genetically-modified mosquitoes in the Florida Keys, as part of an effort to curb the spread of Zika. This would be the first time genetically modified insects were released in the US for disease control.

Voters in the originally-proposed test site—a small island called Key Haven—rejected the proposal in a non-binding referendum during the election this month, but a county-wide vote was 57 percent in favor of releasing the insects. On Saturday, the local government board, the Florida Keys Mosquito Control District, voted 3-2 in favor of continuing with the project, only in a different location.

"We all have our opinions, we all have to listen to our constituents, and this is a tool mosquito control needs," Jill Cranney-Gage, one of the board commissioners, said during the meeting. "We need to think long and hard about this decision that we make today, and make the decision that's in the best interest of protecting the health in the county."

The mosquitoes are a genetically modified version of the Aedes aegypti species, which spreads Zika and other viruses capable of sickening humans, such as Dengue. Designed by Oxitec, a biotech company that sprang out of Oxford University, the mosquitoes are given a gene that causes them to die off. Only male mosquitoes are released, after being treated with a temporary antidote to the effects of the gene. While the mosquitoes live, they mate, passing on the deadly gene to their offspring before the antidote wears off, and they bite the dust as well.

The idea is that this would significantly reduce the mosquito population in the area, which would reduce the spread of Zika, a disease which can cause serious birth defects. There is still currently active transmission of Zika in Florida, according to the Centers for Disease Control (meaning people are picking it up at home, not getting infected while traveling and bringing it back).

Oxitec has tested this in small field trials before, and claims one Brazil trial reduced the Aedes aegypti population by 96 percent in six months. The World Health Organization has given Oxitec's insects a stamp of approval, and the Food and Drug Administration granted permission for the company to conduct the Florida trial, but still some locals are wary of having their community used as a test site.

Some of the concerns raised include the impact genetically-modified mosquitoes could have on the local wildlife that feeds on insects and fears that the virus could mutate and become resistant (to what, exactly, isn't clear, because there is no treatment for Zika or Dengue currently). But these concerns are largely based on a misunderstanding of the trial, which by design mean all of the released mosquitoes will die off. As Cranney-Gage said during the meeting, the biggest hurdle for public health now is finding an open-minded community in the Keys, and making sure they have the best available information.

"We come to these meetings every month and we get screamed at, and attacked, and accused of stuff," Cranney-Gage said. "Whatever location we choose, [...] going out out into those neighborhoods, and engaging those people, and talking to them, and publicly educating them with factual and correct information about this project will make them feel more comfortable."