MIAMI — A controversial project to release genetically modified mosquitoes in the Florida Keys to battle the disease-carrying Aedes aegypti mosquitoes started last week. Boxes filled with eggs, water and food are being placed in the Lower and Middle Keys.
The modified Aedes aegypti mosquitoes will be in six Keys locations: two on Cudjoe Key, one on Ramrod Key and three on Vaca Key, with the non-biting male mosquitoes starting to emerge in May, according to the British biotech company Oxitec, which is conducting the trial.
The male bugs will mate with the female mosquitoes, which are the ones that bite.
But a “death mechanism” built into the mosquitoes is meant to prevent viable female offspring resulting from the mating, according to Oxitec.
“The female offspring of these encounters cannot survive, and the population of Aedes aegypti is subsequently controlled,” Oxitec said in a statement. “The Aedes aegypti mosquito makes up about 4 percent of the mosquito population in the Keys but is responsible for virtually all mosquito-borne diseases transmitted to humans.”
This species of mosquito spreads diseases such as Zika, dengue fever and chikungunya. Last year, the Keys saw its first outbreak of the mosquito-borne disease dengue fever in 10 years.
Fewer than 12,000 mosquitoes are expected to emerge each week for about 12 weeks, Oxitec said.
The project has been approved by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, the state of Florida and the local mosquito control district’s five-member board to try to eradicate or significantly reduce the local population of the mosquitoes.
Oxitec says “public support in project areas remains high” but some local people oppose the release of genetically modified male mosquitoes.
Mara Daly of Key Largo has been protesting the project for nine years and has deep concerns over whether the release will harm people and the environment.
“The locals have had some serious questions over the years, scientifically, easily based questions that they have refused to answer for 10 years,” Daly said. “They say lots of things but there is no science and no proof and they don’t allow simple testing.”
Daly said Oxitec could have studied whether the project will cause allergic reactions.
“Why do they not perform a simple test to satisfy locals who are forced to be part of this project trial?” Daly asked. “It’s not one person asking. It’s a lot of people asking for a lot of years. They’ve lied about their successes in the past. They’ve lied to my face.”
The mosquitoes will not cause allergic reactions, said Meredith Fensom, head of global public affairs for Oxitec.
“What she’s saying is simply not true,” Fensom said. “Oxitec has conducted extensive tests.”