Florida Keys

Oxitec’s U.S. owner forms PAC to promote GMO mosquitoes before vote taken in Keys

The U.S. owner of the British company planning to release genetically modified mosquitoes into the Lower Keys is hiring canvassers to promote the controversial project to residents ahead of a Nov. 8 referendum.

A recently-formed political action committee will be paying the canvassers’ wages, The Reporter/Keynoter has learned.

Marcia Austin, spokeswoman for the British company Oxitec, confirmed that an Aug. 26 Craiglist ad looking for “door-to-door canvassers” is aimed at convincing Key West residents to vote “yes” on a Nov. 8 non-binding ballot initiative gauging support for the proposal — designed to destroy the lower Keys population of Aedes aegypti mosquitoes, which spread the Zika virus.

The ad, which was unpublished Aug. 30, the same day The Reporter/Keynoter asked about it, states the position pays $15 an hour “to speak with voters.”

There is stiff community opposition to the project, which would be conducted in partnership with the Florida Keys Mosquito Control District.

Minutes after Oxitec confirmed the ad was to promote the GM mosquito project, a group called The Florida Keys Safety Alliance issued a press release that it “has launched an education awareness campaign to reach the residents in Monroe County who will be voting on a non-binding referendum related to the use of genetically modified mosquitoes to suppress the invasive Aedes aeqypti mosquito.”

The contact on the release is a one-time lobbyist named Steve Vancore, who runs Vancore-Jones Communications, a Tallahassee-based public relations firm. Vancore said that the Alliance group is a political action committee financially backed by Intrexon Corporation, the U.S. company based in Germantown, Maryland, that acquired Oxitec in 2015.

Vancore called the group a “PAC set up to address legislative concerns.”

Since Oxitec is a British company, Intrexon by federal law must be the entity to promote the referendum or any other U.S. election matters.

Vancore said the amount of money Intrexon paid into the PAC so far is not yet available, but should be in the next few days.

“As soon as we get our act together, we will send it out,” Vancore said.

Oxitec wants to release millions of the genetically modified bugs so they will mate with natural female Aedes aegypti mosquitoes living in Key Haven, an island community just east of Key West. Aedes aegypti mosquitoes carry the Zika virus. Oxitec says its male mosquitoes are genetically programmed to reproduce offspring that will not live past the larvae stage. The goal of the project is to kill off or significantly reduce Key Haven’s population of Aedes aegypti mosquitoes.

There is concern among a group of local doctors, however, that the mosquitoes could end up spreading antibiotic-resistant bacteria. To ensure that the male GM mosquitoes remain alive in the lab, Oxitec injects them with the antibiotic tetracycline, which inactivates the gene that keeps them from staying alive beyond the larvae stage. Dr. John Norris submitted a petition to the Mosquito Control District earlier this month, signed by 19 colleagues, wanting to know more about the types of bacteria the insects have on the surface of their bodies.

The tetracycline could result in that bacteria becoming drug-resistant, Norris said.