KEY LARGO (CBSMiami) — In Brazil, the British firm Oxitec has released millions of laboratory-bred mosquito-killing mosquitoes.
Male mosquitoes have been genetically altered to impregnate females whose offspring do not survive.
From a secure lab in Marathon, in the Florida Keys, Oxitec has made the case for using its lab-grown bugs to kill off Zika-carrying mosquitoes on the island string.
“We have shown greater than 90% control of the mosquito population, it’s been proven safe and effective in Cayman, Panama and Brazil,” said Dr. Derek Nimmo of Oxitec.
But outside the lab on Wednesday, demonstrators decried the notion of Keys Conchs being used as lab rats.
“We don’t have enough risk assessment. They have not answered questions properly. They’ve lied repeatedly to us and we can’t trust the company,” said Mara Daly of the Florida Keys Environmental Coalition.
Just this month the FDA green-lit a genetically-altered mosquito trial in a small Key West neighborhood. It was a political decision, critics say, amid the Zika scare.
“I don’t necessarily feel that the environmental assessment process is a very rigorous process,” said Barry Wray of the Florida Keys Environmental Coalition. “All of the material is produced by Oxitec and fed to the FDA.”
Oxitec said that is partly true but its killer mosquitoes have been vetted by the FDA, the EPA, an alphabet soup of federal agencies.
“They have all analyzed an environmental assessment that, yes, was written by us,” Nimmo said. “But the data in there is all from independent groups, scientists and universities.”
Phil Goodman chairs the elected Florida Keys Mosquito Control District and supports the genetic warfare, saying traditional methods just are not working.
“With all of the Herculean efforts that we are doing at the Florida Keys Mosquito Control, we are only controlling 30, 50 maybe a maximum 60% at of this mosquito at times,” Goodman said.
But some have questioned if the lab-grown anti-mosquito mosquitoes might have made matters worse. A recent article in the Daily Mirror, in Oxitec’s home country, suggested as much.
Oxitec calls the suggestion absurd and points to what it says has been a sharp drop in disease in one Brazilian town of 50,000 people, where its mosquitoes have been deployed.
Should the Keys eventually contract with Oxitec for mosquito control in Key West alone, the deal would be worth more than $1 million a year.
As the back-biting between Oxitec, its supporters and its critics continues, the people of the Keys may be the deciding body.
The mosquito control district, all elected officials, voted 3-2 to put the question to a non-binding referendum on the November 8th general election ballot.