On Tuesday, Aug. 18, the board of the Florida Keys Mosquito Control District will finally vote on an experimental trial of the Oxitec genetically modified mosquito in the Florida Keys. 

The portion of the meeting pertaining to the proposed Oxitec and FKMCD partnership will start at 5 p.m. sharp. To watch, visit keysmosquito.org and click on the board and meetings tab. Scroll down and look for the portal to the second half of the regular board meeting. 

The vote was deferred in July, giving time for those for and against to present arguments and information.

Recently, Oxitec has been running a series of webinars covering a variety of subjects. The last is scheduled the day before the vote, on Monday, Aug. 17 at 5 p.m. (To watch, or see one of the archived webinars, visit oxitec.com/florida.) The subject of the final Oxitec webinar is “Review 20 Years of Independent Assessment, Oversight and Validation.” Oxitec said some webinars have attracted as many as 100 viewers, or as few as 25, but there are continuous hits on the archived presentations.

Barry Wray of the Florida Keys Environmental Coalition unveiled a billboard in the Upper Keys (MM 92.5) opposing the trial in late July. The billboard reads: “WARNING!!! GENETICALLY MODIFIED MOSQUITOES TO BE RELEASED IN THE KEYS!!!” and lists a website, www.stopgmm.com.

Earlier in July, two groups hosted virtual meetings with a panel of experts. 

The Center for Food Safety and Friends of the Earth presented on July 13 with panelists from Yale University, GeneWatch UK, Dr. John Norris of the Lower Keys Medical Center and Ed Russo of the Florida Keys Environmental Coalition. 

On the following day, the FKMCD hosted a virtual meeting with panelists from the National Association of County and City Health Officials; Bob Eadie, health administrator for the state Department of Health in Monroe County; veterinarian Dr. Doug Mader; and a professor from the University of Florida’s medical entomology laboratory.  

Oxitec’s experimental trial proposal has been cleared by federal and state officials. Oxitec has been courting the keys and FKMCD for more than a decade. Whether or not the trial takes place is up to a vote by the board of the FKMCD. Oxitec says its technology can decrease the chances of mosquito-borne diseases such as dengue fever — in 2020, Monroe County has confirmed 42 cases, see sidebar — and zika. 

In both versions of the technology, Oxitec takes a biologically modified mosquito and uses tetracycline to keep it alive to adulthood so that it can mate. A very basic layman’s explanation of the procedure is to say that when the tetracycline applications stop (when the mosquitoes are released into the wild), the mosquitoes and offspring die. In the 2nd generation technology, only female breeders are treated with tetracycline in the lab in the U.K. Then the male-only eggs can be shipped globally for distribution. (Male mosquitoes do not bite humans; only female mosquitoes require blood to reproduce.) Boxes of the male-only eggs can be placed in neighborhoods. Once in place, water and fluorescent markers are added to the boxes. 

Eadie has endorsed the trials. 

“You can never have enough tools,” he said, referring to the Oxitec technology. “As we go forward we need to figure out how to control any type of outbreaks of infectious diseases. I go back to COVID. It’s possible we can create a vaccine for that, but decades of trials for a dengue vaccine have not been successful. We need some way to protect the public from mosquito-borne diseases and this looks like viable technology.”

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