Mosquito protest

About two dozen people gathered outside Murray E. Nelson Government and Cultural Center in Key Largo recently to protest the planned release of genetically modified mosquitoes in the Florida Keys.

MONROE COUNTY — Tensions seem to be rising as a planned release of genetically modified mosquitoes nears.

The British-based biotech company Oxitec plans to release genetically modified Aedes aegypti mosquitoes in the Florida Keys sometime after April, but has yet to disclose exact locations in the Keys or a date.

The mosquitoes carry a self-destruct gene intended to reduce subsequent generations of the wild population through breeding.

Residents opposed to the release staged a protest in Key Largo late last month, and the Coalition Against GMO Mosquitoes launched a new website to galvanize public opposition to genetically engineered mosquitoes, according to a press release by the coalition.

The group launched to counter what the group called “misleading advertising and unsubstantiated public statements” by Oxitec and its partner the Florida Keys Mosquito Control District, which has approved the test release and is working with Oxitec on the project, the coalition’s press release stated.

The website features a “We Do Not Consent to GMO Mosquitoes” map where people can sign up to place a marker of opposition.

The coalition is also sending a letter by Florida Keys resident Meagan Hull to President Biden urging an intervention in the impending experimental releases of GE mosquitoes in the Keys.

Hull called the release a “human experiment,” which is the opposite of what Oxitec told the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, the public and regulatory agencies, she said.

“We are supposed to have the right to decline to be the subjects of Oxitec’s science experiment,” Hull said. “We’re being bullied into this experiment that we don’t want and there is no way to opt out.”

Many questions and concerns posed by Florida Keys residents, scientists and doctors remain unanswered or inadequately addressed, the coalition stated in its press release. It is demanding a stop to the proposed release until human health studies and an Environmental Impact Statement are performed.

Some residents opposed to the project have urged their neighbors to take matters in their own hands. A post by Facebook group Florida Keys Wall of Shame urged people to pour bleach into the release boxes that hold the GM mosquito eggs until they hatch and fly off, calling the action the only way to stop the trial.

But such behavior could result in criminal prosecution on charges of theft, criminal mischief and trespassing, according to Monroe County Sheriff Rick Ramsay and State Attorney Dennis Ward.

“You can’t take the law into your own hands, even if you don’t like it,” Ramsay said.

Ward reminded residents that the trial has been approved by the local Mosquito Control District and the federal and state governments. In 2016, voters county-wide approved allowing the trials in the Keys, Ward added.

Ward has discussed the Facebook post with Florida Keys Mosquito Control District Chairman Phil Goodman. The two discussed the possible need to place no trespassing signs near the release boxes as well as surveillance cameras, Ward said.

Oxitec representatives have not yet announced specific release sites, but have said the locations will cover a broad area between mile marker 10 and 93, with smaller specific release sites scattered throughout the Keys, Oxitec spokeswoman Meredith Fensom said.

The project will be split into two. Project A will include one small box in one neighborhood. That project will allow Oxitec to test the efficacy of a potential mosquito control product that citizens could buy at hardware store and use in their backyard, Fensom said.

Project B would allow Oxitec to test its genetic modification technology that the Florida Keys Mosquito Control District, other mosquito control agencies and local governments could use on a much larger scale. Those test releases would include releasing GM mosquitoes from as many as six to nine boxes placed in each area, Fensom said.

Once the sites are chosen, Oxitec plans to release millions of genetically modified mosquitoes from about 130 boxes that will be placed in a test area for roughly 28 weeks, according to the company.

An outbreak of mosquito-borne dengue fever in 2020 in the Upper Keys, with 67 confirmed cases, has brought a new sense of urgency about tropical diseases and more urgency to the pilot project, local officials say. Oxitec is targeting Aedes aegypti mosquitoes because they are the species known to carry dengue fever and other diseases such as Zika and chikungunya.

In August, the Florida Keys Mosquito Control District board voted 4-1 to proceed with Oxitec’s proposal, with member Brandon Pinder casting the lone vote against the test.

The proposed project first gained traction in the Florida Keys after an outbreak of dengue fever in 2009 and 2010 in Key West.

A non-binding referendum held in Monroe County in 2016 resulted in 58% of the voters agreeing to a GM mosquito release proposed by Oxitec.

The lab-reared Oxitec mosquitoes have a self-destruction mechanism in their DNA, which stops female insects from reaching adulthood, according to Oxitec.

Tetracycline delays the mechanism from starting in females, which are given small doses of the antibiotic in the lab when they are larvae to keep them alive to produce eggs.

The male mosquitoes, which do not bite, are not affected by the self-destruction mechanism in their DNA, and so males that are released into the wild never encounter tetracycline, according to Oxitec.

Last year, the company redesigned its technology and developed an updated version of the GM mosquito. The second generation allows for greater efficiencies in rearing and better suppression, according to Oxitec.