With Zika panic hitting Florida like a slap of sun-baked standing water to the face, the Tampa Bay Times reported Wednesday that Florida Keys residents are still fighting efforts to release GMO mosquitoes to beat back the virus. That's despite the fact that such an insect is the Keys' best hope to avoid a Zika outbreak.
Today the U.S. Food and Drug Administration reinforced what scientists have been saying for months: Oxitec Ltd.'s plan to release GMO mosquitoes in the Keys will have "no significant impact" on the Monroe County environment.
After preliminarily determining that the lab-modified bugs were totally harmless in March, the FDA opened a two-month public-comment period. The administration took emails and calls about the proposal from concerned South Floridians until May 13 — after fielding comments from anti-science conspiracy theorists for months. Then it decided the mosquitoes were totally fine.
"After considering thousands of public comments, the FDA has published a final environmental assessment (EA) and finding of no significant impact that agrees with the [FDA's original] conclusion... The proposed field trial will not have significant impacts on the environment," the administration said in a release.
Oxitec says its mosquitoes have offspring that die almost immediately after birth. Once the mosquitoes mix with existing bug populations, the company says, overall mosquito populations will drop significantly. Oxitec has tested the technology in Brazil, Panama, and the Cayman Islands.
The company now wants to test its insects in Key Haven, Florida.
New Times originally profiled Oxitec's struggle to take its mosquitoes to the Keys in 2010, when Floridians were gearing up for an outbreak of dengue fever that never quite materialized. But public acceptance of GMO foods, let alone living organisms, is still a long way away.
Keys mosquito control expert Michael Doyle, whom New Times interviewed extensively in 2010, is still struggling to convince people that lab-grown mosquitoes are safe six years later. This week, he told the New York Times he's had to fight a "small but vocal minority" of residents to get a single bug into the chain of islands. People are afraid that genetically modified bugs aren't natural. "I want to say I understand and appreciate both the people's desire to protect each other and the environment," he told the paper. "What's disheartening is, when solid facts and reasoning are presented, that's not always successful in swaying people's intellect."
(Scores of conspiracy theorists, whom I will not deign to link to, accuse the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, which is funding some GMO mosquito research, of drumming up a "Zika scare" to get population-controlling mosquitoes released into the air. Some other factually incorrect folks blame Oxitec for releasing the Zika virus. Really.)
So today it appears GMO fear-mongers have lost yet another battle with the FDA. But much to the chagrin of folks like Doyle, the ruling doesn't guarantee Oxitec's bugs will soon zip around the Keys.
Oxitec has to get through local governments first.