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Everything you need to know about the zika virus in South Florida.

Key Haven Residents Oppose GMO Mosquito Test

Nancy Klingener
Signs opposing the proposed trial of genetically modified mosquitoes line the roads on Key Haven, a peninsula about five miles from Key West.

While the FDA has released a preliminary finding of no significant impact from a proposed test of genetically modified mosquitoes in the Florida Keys, many in the neighborhood where the test would take place are opposed to the plan.

Oxitec, the company that makes the genetically modified version of aedes aegypti, is holding two public meetings in Key West this week to answer questions from the public, especially those in Key Haven. That neighborhood, a peninsula about five miles from Key West, is the proposed testing site.

Aedes aegypti are the mosquitoes that carry diseases such as dengue fever, zika, chikingunya and malaria.

Most of those who came out Monday evening are opposed to the test.

"Adamantly opposed," said Randy Sterling, who has lived on Key Haven for 10 years. He said he's concerned about the potential impact on his daughters.

"What happens when those bite my 4-year-old or 8-year-old?" he said. "They have no idea what that may cause 10, 15 years down the road."

Sterling said he was also concerned that members of the Florida Keys Mosquito Control Board, which ultimately has to approve the test, were not at the meeting on Monday.

"Me and my wife, we worked really hard. We paid a lot of money for our house, to live out there in a nice section to raise a family. And we didn't sign up to be lab rats or guinea pigs for this company," he said. "We're concerned that this is being shoved down our throat. "

Sterling said he also questions why the test is going forward when the Keys have not had a case of dengue since 2010 and have no reported cases of zika so far.

"If 90 percent of Key Haven had dengue or zika, I would be the first one here listening to a solution to a problem," he said. "We don't have a problem."

Derric Nimmo, product development manager at Oxitec, was in the Keys for the meetings. The company plans to release male mosquitoes, which are genetically modified so their offspring do not survive.

"We're here to answer the concerns of those people. The FDA, the CDC and the EPA have reviewed this environmental assessment. And they've deemed a finding of no significant impact," he said.

Nimmo said the company had looked at the question of females being released. Female mosquitoes bite and transmit diseases.

"There's always a possibility that a female could be released and it could bite someone. What does that mean?" he said. "Well, we looked at the females and we found there was no difference between being bitten by one of our females to being bitten by a normal female. Those females are still sterile so their offspring will inherit the gene and will not survive."

In the lab, Oxitec has found that about 3 to 5 percent of the genetically modified mosquitoes survive, Nimmo said. In addition to the modified gene, the mosquitoes also carry a fluorescent marker. The company looked for that after halting release of the genetically modified mosquitoes in trials in Brazil, Panama and the Cayman Islands, he said.

"Within eight weeks there was no evidence of the fluorescent marker in the field. So those survivors, even though they survived to adults, they still die," he said. "If they mate, they still pass on the gene that cause the offspring to die. So within two months we saw no evidence of the gene being present in the field."

Meagan Hull said she has been concerned about the proposed release since she first learned about it in an environmental biology class at Florida Keys Community College.

"I did a lot of research on my own and I was cross-referencing a lot of information from both sides until I realized that there are more questions than answers. And there are a lot of still unanswered questions five years later," she said.

Hull said even though the "media propaganda" says only males will be released, she's concerned about the small number of females that will make it through the sorting process.

"That's kind of a big deal. Because then you have a surviving, genetically modified wild animal out there, bloodsucking, that can breed," she said. "It can suck your blood. It can interact with your DNA. That's a little bit of a concern. This is a whole new area."

Hull said she doesn't know what that interaction with a biting, genetically modified mosquito could mean — and she's not satisfied with what she's heard from Oxitec.

"The mildest reaction could be an allergic reaction. We don't know. We don't have those answers. We would be an experiment, basically," she said. "At worst, what other things could happen? Again, we don't know the answers to that. But if a mosquito can infect someone with dengue, what could a genetically modified mosquito infect you with? Again, we don't know."

Oxitec is holding its second public meeting from 5 to 8 p.m. Tuesday, April 12 at the Key West Marriott Beachside Hotel. The FDA has extended the public comment period until May 13 on its preliminary finding of no significant impact about the proposed trial.

The trial would also need approval from the Florida Keys Mosquito Control Board before it could proceed.

Nancy Klingener was WLRN's Florida Keys reporter until July 2022.
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