Genetically Modified Mosquitoes Probably Headed to Florida Keys to Fight Zika

The bad news: Zika is coming to Florida. This past Friday, two new cases of the virus linked to serious birth defects were reported in the state, and scientists believe it could spread rapidly come summer as mosquito populations explode. And we're still a long way away from a vaccine for the virus.

The good news: Scientists still might have a way to stop its spread — by releasing a swarm of genetically modified mosquitoes across the Florida Keys. Yes, it sounds like the premise of pulpy Michael Crichton novel that ends with a zombie horde infected with GMO mosquito viruses.

But it's looking ever more likely to happen. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has given tentative approval to the plan, and the New York Times published a lengthy op-ed this weekend arguing in favor of the plan. And several new polls show that most of the public supports giving it a shot. 

New Times first looked in-depth at the idea of unleashing GMO mosquitoes in the Keys in 2012, when another virus — dengue fever — threatened to overtake South Florida. Scientists began looking at a novel solution: engineered mosquitoes created by British firm Oxitec. 

The specially bred mosquitoes have a "kill switch" in their genes: When they breed with the local population of Aedes aegypti — the variety of mosquito that carries chikungunya and Zika — they spread a gene that kills the next generation. Soon the whole population will disappear. 

But critics, such as this woman at a public hearing in the Keys, worried about unintended consequences: 

An elderly woman with a refined British accent who didn't want to reveal her name worries that decimating the population of one mosquito species could damage the local food chain and ecosystem. "Everything has a purpose," she says.

Mila de Mier, a real-estate agent who organized this get-together and started a petition against the experiment, rattles off a litany of concerns in her thick Spanish accent. "They're going to spend our money for us to become guinea pigs," she says. "We want this place to remain natural, to be the way it is. We don't need their mosquitoes... Mr. Doyle wants to be a pioneer. He wants to be the first in the U.S. to do this type of experiment."

The GMO mosquitoes were never used in the dengue fight. And until the Zika outbreak, those types of concerns seemed to be prevalent. Nearly 170,000 people signed a petition against releasing the winged insects in the Keys. 

The threat of Zika seems to have changed that equation, though. The virus has been linked to microcephaly, a serious birth defect that causes children to have abnormally small heads. A survey from Purdue University in February found 78 percent of people nationwide support GMO mosquitoes to fight Zika; a new poll today from the AP found 56 percent backing

And more importantly, the FDA has given preliminary approval to the idea. Last month, it ruled that the mosquitoes probably wouldn't harm humans or the environment

But the feds have decided to give the public another 30 days to comment on whether to begin a trial of the GMO mosquitoes in the Keys before ruling on whether to go on with the project, which would start with a trial in a neighborhood of about 400 houses called Key Haven.

You can add your voice here. But given the grave threat posed by Zika and the swinging national mood, it seems more likely than ever that the GMO bugs will be buzzing around the Florida Keys very soon.
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Tim Elfrink is a former investigative reporter and managing editor for Miami New Times. He has won the George Polk Award and was a finalist for the Goldsmith Prize for Investigative Reporting.
Contact: Tim Elfrink

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