On Feb. 23, The Florida Keys Mosquito Control District announced it will begin trials of the Oxitec genetically modified mosquitoes in April. In a press release, the agency said the projects will be focused in a “select number of neighborhoods situated between mile markers 10 and 93 …”
When the Keys Weekly Newspaper asked the agency to elaborate with more detail, it declined.
FKMCD spokesman Chad Huff wrote in an email, “The physical location of each box is still being finalized. Since most will be situated on private property at owner request, FKMCD-Oxitec will NOT be providing specific addresses due to privacy concerns and protection of project integrity.”
Phil Goodman, chairman of the FKMCD said the decision to keep addresses confidential was an operations decision, not a decision by the elected board.
“Right now, we don’t have any specific sites that are 100 percent selected,” said Andrea Leal, executive director of the FKMCD. “We are just narrowing down areas with potential.”
Leal said that no homeowner who volunteered to have “the box” installed on their property has been told definitively that they will receive one. Leal also said that a combination of Oxitec and FKMCD personnel have been going door-to-door in neighborhoods to gauge interest. Leal said those who have been selected to have a box on the property, and neighbors, will be notified before the April or mid-April start of the trial.
“The experimental use permit from the EPA determines how many homeowners need to be notified,” Leal said. “That’s part of the trial, figuring out how far the mosquitoes are flying.”
The trial consists of deploying 130 boxes of Oxitec mosquito eggs in 15 areas and many mosquito traps to gauge the efficacy of the Oxitec technology. Goodman said the agency may offer more detail about the trial locations in the future.
“We might say something like, ‘We have two sites on Sugarloaf Key.’ But we are not going to get into specific addresses,” said Goodman.
Leal said she couldn’t promise to be more specific “at this point in time.”
Both Leal and Goodman said one reason to keep the locations private is to protect the integrity of the trial. Goodman said he doesn’t want “unruly” opponents of the trial to disrupt the experiment. “We want to get meaningful data to regulators so they can determine if it works or not,” he said.
Goodman said neighbors who might object to a box in the proximity of their home have no recourse and the trial doesn’t require it. “This is a heavily regulated trial. No boxes will be placed in anyone’s yard that doesn’t want it. I am sure there is going to be push-back,” he said.
When the boxes are deployed in April, it will be the culmination of years of preparation. In June 2020, Oxitec received permission from seven Florida agencies to conduct the experimental trial. That came after the federal approval in May of 2020. A similar trial will be conducted in Texas. On Feb. 31, about two dozen protesters gathered in the Upper Keys to protest the trial.
The trial targets the Aedes aegypti mosquito which transmits dengue, zika, chikungunya and yellow fever.
Oxitec’s 2nd Generation mosquitoes can be distributed as eggs in boxes and shipped globally. A box containing eggs could be placed in a backyard and filled with water, after which the males hatch and start to grow. When the mosquitoes emerge, they fly away into the neighborhood to find female mosquitoes to mate with. Only male progeny survive, also carrying the self-limiting gene to half its offspring that are male only … and so on. The 2nd Generation technology allows Oxitec to reduce the number of times the egg box must be refilled, reduces the total population, and Oxitec says, when releases stop, the 2nd Generation mosquito dies out in the wild after a few generations.
More information is available at keysmosquitoproject.com.