South Miami to Become Test Ground for Zika-Fighting, Bacteria-Carrying Mosquitoes

As another hot AF summer commences in Miami, mosquitoes will once again be unavoidable. Testing is still underway as scientists work to develop a Zika vaccine, but in the meantime, public health officials' best advice for preventing transmission seems to be just telling people not to get bit.

In South Miami, though, city leaders are hoping to reduce the number of Zika-transmitting mosquitoes altogether through a novel approach. On Tuesday, the city commission unanimously voted to allow the county to release batches of special mosquitoes that could knock out the city's local population of disease-carrying skeeters.

The experiment "has the potential to save lives with no downsides to our residents," says Mayor Philip Stoddard, who is also an FIU biology professor.

The field trial involves the introduction of mosquitoes infected with Wolbachia, a naturally occurring bacteria that's been shown to kill off future generations of Aedes aegypti, the mosquito that transmits diseases like Zika and dengue.

Under South Miami's resolution, Stoddard says MosquitoMate, a Kentucky-based biotech company, will supply Miami-Dade County with a batch of male mosquitoes that have been infected with the bacteria. The county will then release the mosquitoes in South Miami, where the insects will mate with local female mosquitoes. The Wolbachia makes the females' eggs nonviable, killing off the next generation of mosquitoes. (The lifespan for an Aedes aegypti is anywhere from two to five weeks.)

The fact that South Miami hasn't yet had a known case of locally transmitted Zika makes the city a great fit for the trial, as aerial spraying in places like Miami Beach and Wynwood would make it difficult to know whether a mosquito reduction was due to pesticides or the Wolbachia-infected mosquitoes.

"From a scientific standpoint, we're a better place than either Wynwood or Miami Beach," Stoddard says.

It's important to note that the Wolbachia-infected mosquitoes aren't the same as the controversial, genetically modified mosquitoes that were debated last year in the Florida Keys. The EPA regulates Wolbachia mosquitoes as a "biopesticide" and considers their release to be of minimal risk. The plan involves releasing male mosquitoes, which don't bite, and the bacteria can't be passed to humans.

"It's a lot less controversial because nothing has been genetically modified," Stoddard says.

Wolbachia-infected mosquitoes have already been released in Rio de Janeiro, MedellĂ­n, Los Angeles, and the Florida Keys. MosquitoMate says trials have shown up to an 80 percent reduction in testing sites.