Miami-Dade "Monitoring" GMO Mosquitoes in Keys as Potential Zika Solution Here

With even more locally transmitted Zika cases announced this week in Wynwood and Miami Beach, officials are squabbling about who's to blame and what we can do to end the outbreak. Miami Beach Mayor Philip Levine accused Gov. Rick Scott of "blindsiding" him with news that Zika was on the Beach, and the next day, Scott blasted the federal government by saying it "has not been a partner."

Miami-Dade has already begun limiting its pesticide-spraying schedule after protests erupted for using naled, a controversial pesticide that has been banned in Europe. 

There is another option — but local and county officials are moving slowly when considering the use of genetically modified mosquitoes. 

Lee Casey, chief of the county's environmental affairs division, says the department is "monitoring" efforts in the Florida Keys to potentially release the genetically modified mosquitoes but hasn't taken steps beyond that. 

"The question as to whether we would use it, how it would be approved, and how it would be funded are items that we cannot speculate upon at this point," he tells New Times

Here's how those GMO bugs work: Once released, the genetically modified male mosquitoes mate with females, which are the ones that bite humans. The altered DNA causes their offspring to die, effectively stopping the breeding cycle.  

Earlier this month, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration paved the way for a field trial in the Florida Keys using genetically modified mosquitoes from a laboratory called Oxitec, saying it would not have a significant environmental impact there

A straw poll asking Keys residents where they stand will be on the ballot in Monroe County in November, although their local mosquito control board won't be bound by the results. A May poll of 88 households in Key West showed that 58 percent of respondents opposed or strongly opposed efforts to release genetically modified mosquitoes.

Oxitec, the company that produces the genetically modified mosquitoes, has said use of the insects has reduced the population of Aedes aegypti, the mosquito that transmits Zika, by 90 percent in trials in Brazil, Panama, and the Cayman Islands.

An Oxitec spokesman did not respond to New Times' questions about how the laboratory would work with a place like Miami to release the mosquitoes. An email from the company last week said it would take about a month for the scientists there to produce them. 

Some local officials are tentatively interested. Miami Beach Commissioner Kristen Rosen Gonzalez says she's willing to research the advantages and disadvantages of introducing GMO mosquitoes to the Beach. She points out that because Miami Beach is a barrier island, it could be mutually beneficial to work with a company such as Oxitec, which would benefit from being able to test its product in an isolated area. 

"If it's a technology that could work, as a community we have to decide," Rosen Gonzalez says. "According to what I've read, it sounds like a real solution. I would definitely explore this."

Her colleague Commissioner Michael Grieco, however, is less intrigued by the idea.

"My knee-jerk reaction is that I'm generally opposed to genetically modified anything," he tells New Times. "Makes me think of the scene from Jurassic Park, but I'm open to a discussion."

Casey, the county's environmental affairs chief, says the county is also exploring other tools to fight Zika, such as the use of Wolbachia, a type of bacteria that has been used to fight dengue. Essentially, mosquitoes infected with the bacteria are unable to transmit viruses. 

"Whatever the county would use would have to be approved by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and other involved federal and state agencies and would be based on recommendations of agencies such as the Florida Department of Health, the Florida Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services, and the Centers for Disease Control," Casey says.
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Jessica Lipscomb is news editor of Miami New Times and an enthusiastic Florida Woman. Born and raised in Orlando, she has been a finalist for the Livingston Award for Young Journalists.
Contact: Jessica Lipscomb