In fight against Zika, British company Oxitec must seek approval from FDA for insects’ release into the wild following Monroe County referendum

Genetically modified mosquitoes could be released in the Florida Keys as early as this spring, an official said, after voters in Monroe County, Florida, approved the experiment in a referendum on election day

The British company Oxitec will still need to apply to the US Food and Drug Administration for approval, as the original location for the trial – Key Haven – voted against the trial. The experiment could be the first time a genetically modified animal is released into the wild in the United States. 

“We decided we have so many other options in the county that we are going to pick another site in the county, and not worry about Key Haven for the trial,” said Phil Goodman, a commissioner with the Florida Keys mosquito control district and longtime supporter of the trial.

The male mosquitoes modified by Oxitec are designed to control Aedes aegypti mosquito populations by mating with wild females, and passing a gene to their offspring that stops them from reaching maturity. Only male mosquitoes are to be released (one out of every 1,000 could be female). Male mosquitoes do not bite. 

The mosquitoes are meant to undermine the same mosquitoes that spread Zika, a virus that can cause birth defects in children born to infected mothers. The virus ravaged Brazil before arriving this spring in Puerto Rico, an American territory, and then parts of Miami. 

Oxitec has billed the mosquitoes as a way to control populations without poisonous insecticides. However, opposition to the trial was widespread in Key Haven, a small, upscale community near Key West. Just 35% of Key Haven residents supported the measure, whereas 58% of voters supported it in Monroe County as a whole.

Though Oxitec plans to abandon the Key Haven location, countywide support means the company can look for a new location to run the trial in Monroe County. 

“While we did not win over every community in the Keys, Oxitec appreciates the support received from the community,” Oxitec CEO Hadyn Parry said in a release. He said the company, “is prepared to take the next steps with the Florida Keys Mosquito Control Board to trial its environmentally-friendly and non-persisting mosquito control solution”.

Some opposition also came from the broader Florida Keys community. Mila de Mier, a real estate agent in Key West, said she planned on personally shepherding lawsuits against the trial should it go forward elsewhere in Monroe County. 

“I wasn’t surprised, I wasn’t very surprised at all,” said de Mier about the referendum result. De Mier is one of the most fervent opponents of Oxitec. She and many others contend that the impacts of such a release are not well enough studied to justify the risk of releasing the animals. 

Oxitec has long portrayed itself as a community-oriented company. Their spokesperson, Derric Nimmo, previously told the Guardian he personally went door-to-door to try to convince Key Haven residents of the value of the experiment.

But during the election, the company took more drastic measures, funding a political committee called Florida Keys Safety Alliance to promote its product, Florida Keys News reported.

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