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Florida Voters Give Split Decision on GM Mosquitoes [Updated]

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(Erik Hersman, Flickr)

Update: 21 November 2016. Oxitec reports the Florida Keys Mosquito Control District board approved an agreement with the company to proceed with the trial of genetically-engineered mosquitoes to limit the population of Aedes aegypti varieties that spread viruses including Zika, dengue, and chikungunya.

9 November 2016. Voters in the Florida Keys yesterday returned a split decision on non-binding ballot questions about testing genetically modified mosquitoes to stop the Zika virus. While a majority (58%) of the 40,500 voters in Monroe County that includes the Florida Keys support going forward with the field test, about two-thirds (65%) of 643 voters in the town of Key Haven, where the test is set to take place, voted against it.

The Zika virus is transmitted primarily by aedes aegypti mosquitoes but also by sexual contact, with the current outbreak resulting in increasing numbers of cases of birth defects, notably microcephaly and Guillain-Barré syndrome. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reports as of 2 November 2016, more than 4,100 Zika cases in U.S. states and more than 30,000 cases in U.S. territories, with 1,005  pregnant women showing evidence of Zika infection in U.S. states and another 2,263 pregnant women with Zika infections in U.S. territories.

The same mosquito species transmits dengue, a viral disease that occurs most frequently in tropical urban regions of the world. World Health Organization estimates as many as 390 million infections occur each year, with half of the world’s population at risk.

Oxitec Ltd. in Oxford, U.K., developed the genetically-engineered Aedes aegypti mosquito proposed for the field test to head off outbreaks of these viral diseases. Oxitec uses genetic engineering techniques to insert a gene in males of the species that when released into the wild mate with females and produce offspring that die before becoming adults, and thus are prevented from having offspring. As a result the Aedes aegypti mosquito population in the area of the release is markedly reduced or eliminated.

The company conducted other field trials of its genetically modified mosquitoes in Brazil for the control of dengue. Results from Juazeiro city, in a region of Brazil known to have a high incidence of the disease — as reported by Science & Enterprise in July 2015 — show the engineered variety reduced the dengue mosquito population by 95 percent, well below the level needed to spread the virus. A similar test in Piracicaba, a city in southeastern Brazil, showed the incidence of dengue decreased by 91% in the district where the engineered mosquitoes were released over a 1-year period, compared to 52 percent elsewhere in the city.

The Food and Drug Administration found in August 2016 that the field test would not create a significant environmental impact on the region. The final decision to go ahead with the test, according to the Miami Herald, is up to the Florida Keys Mosquito Control Board. The test is scheduled for the spring of 2017, with the board’s next meeting scheduled for 19 November.

“While we did not win over every community in the Keys,” says Oxitec CEO Hadyn Parry in a company statement, “Oxitec appreciates the support received from the community and is prepared to take the next steps with the Florida Keys Mosquito Control Board to trial its environmentally-friendly and non-persisting mosquito control solution.” Oxitec is a subsidiary of the synthetic biology company Intrexon Corp. in Gaithersburg, Maryland.

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