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This firm would like to release GMO mosquitoes in the Keys. The EPA wants your thoughts.

A female 'Aedes aegypti' mosquito draws blood from a human host.
A female 'Aedes aegypti' mosquito draws blood from a human host. Stock photo

The Environmental Protection Agency has extended the public comment period on an application it received from a British company in December seeking to release millions of genetically modified mosquitoes somewhere in the Florida Keys.

The deadline for comments is June 7.

The lab-grown aedes aegypti mosquitoes are almost all male and are designed to mate with females. Their offspring, according to the research by the biotech company Oxitec, which is seeking the release of the GMO mosquitoes, will not survive into adulthood because of a self-limiting gene bred into the males. The aim is to wipe out, or significantly reduce, the local population of aedes aegypti mosquitoes, which spread deadly viruses like dengue fever and Zika.

Oxitec had originally planned on releasing the GMO bugs in the Lower Keys community of Keys Haven, but that community overwhelmingly rejected a non-binding referendum in November 2016 asking residents if they were in favor of the experiment.

Other areas in the Keys, however, were more receptive. In fact, the 2016 countywide ballot measure passed with nearly 58 percent of the more than 40,500 people who voted.

Derric Nimmo, head of Oxitec's U.S. operations, said that to his knowledge, that was the "first ever referendum in the world regarding genetically modified organisms. Very positive results."

The mosquito kills nearly 750,000 people each year. Malaria is the cause for the majority of these deaths, but a Zika outbreak has the Americas scared of this insect. This is how the insect spreads disease to its victims.

Whether those who voted in favor did so believing the experimental release would not happen in their neighborhoods is up for debate. During the original public comment period of March 9 through April 9, 432 people weighed in on the EPA notice in the Federal Register. Fewer than 30 favored the proposal.

"Humans and animals in Florida should not be subjects of the GMO mosquito experiment," one commenter stated. "The ramifications are uncontrollable and irreparable. Please do not release GMO mosquitoes into the wild without an independent, long-term study."

Nimmo said the commenters may not be representative of the Keys population as a whole, and even if they are, the EPA isn't basing its final decision on what people write in the Federal Register.

"The EPA states that, 'although public support or opposition may help guide important policy, agencies make determinations for a proposed action based on sound reasoning and scientific evidence rather than a majority of votes," Nimmo said.

Oxitec received approval from the U.S. Food and Drug Administration in 2016 for the Keys Haven release. The company applied for and is waiting for an experimental-use permit from the EPA to be allowed to release the GMO bugs in 12 yet-to-be-determined sites.

"We haven't identified those sites," Nimmo said Tuesday.

Beth Ranson, public education and information officer with the Florida Keys Mosquito Control District, whose board of elected commissioners approved Oxitec's proposal, said the sites will likely be chosen among areas where voters were more receptive to the 2016 referendum.

Miami-Dade County and South Miami will release a batch of Wolbachia-infected male mosquitoes in an effort to better mosquito control for the coming season.

According to results released by the Monroe County Supervisor of Elections, the referendum passed decisively in areas like Sugarloaf Key in the Lower Keys, Key Colony Beach in the Middle Keys, and Islamorada and Ocean Reef Club in the Upper Keys.

COMMENT ON THE PROPOSAL

To comment on the Oxitec proposal, go to https://www.federalregister.gov/documents/2018/05/08/2018-09777/pesticide-experimental-use-permit-receipt-of-application-reopening-of-comment-period.

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