Florida residents unhappy with anti-Zika mosquito testing

11 April 2016

To fight a mosquito, maybe you've got to be a mosquito - at least that's the hope behind one of the proposals to try to combat the Zika virus.

With the mosquito-borne disease creeping toward the US mainland, British company Oxitec says one way to stop it is with genetically modified male insects, programmed to produce offspring that die before adulthood

Oxitec says no adults means no spread for the Aedes aegypti mosquito, which carries the Zika virus. They hope to give their plan a test in Key Haven, Florida, and say success against Zika could also cut the rate of dengue and yellow fevers.

''I've yet to find the 'Save the Mosquito' society,'' Oxitec CEO Hadyn Parry said in a recent interview. ''No ones likes mosquitoes, and this one is an invasive species. It shouldn't be there.''

Yet a vocal crop of Florida activists say the company is trying to test a new product without full consent from the community. They worry that the release of genetically modified organisms will result in unintended consequences for the human population and environment while deterring tourists, who are vital to the local economy.

 ''I'm angry now. They're doing it against the will of the people,'' said Mila de Mier, a Key West resident who started a petition against the trial.

The Food and Drug Administration recently said Oxitec's proposal did not appear to pose a significant risk to humans and the local environment, though last week it gave the public an extra month, through 13 May, to comment on its findings before final approval.

Oxitec's trial could last up to a year and release millions of mosquitoes into a small, multi-block area of Key Haven.

The proposal has been wending its way through the federal regulatory process since 2011, when a local mosquito control director asked the company for help in controlling dengue, a flulike illness that can be lethal in severe cases.

The emerging Zika threat has breathed new life into the proposal. Though many who have been infected do not show symptoms, the virus has been linked to a dramatic surge in the number of babies born with abnormally small heads in Latin America and a syndrome that can lead to paralysis.

The virus is spreading in Puerto Rico, and local transmission could hit the U.S. mainland within months.

''Zika presents a very clear and present threat. And really, there isn't any time to waste,'' Parry said.

Oxitec's male aegypti have a self-limiting gene that causes them to mate with wild females and produce offspring that cannot mature into adults. The technology reduced wild mosquito larvae by about 90 percent during trials in Brazil, the Cayman Islands and Panama, compared with 30 percent to 50 percent eradication from spraying, Parry said.

The males it would release don't bite people, Oxitec says, and wild females typically mate only once in their short life spans, so the technique slashes the overall population.

''The fight against mosquito-borne diseases has been going on for over a century,'' said Amesh Adalja, senior associate at the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center's health security division. ''Genetically modified mosquitoes are a potentially path-breaking tool that will improve human life. (See: Bacteria-laden mosquitoes can combat Zika, dengue).

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