Faced with their first local case of the Zika virus, Pinellas County leaders on Friday asked federal health officials to skip field trials on genetically modified mosquitoes in the Florida Keys and give them emergency authorization to release the “Franken-skeeters.”
In a letter to U.S. Department of Health and Human Services Secretary Sylvia Mathews Burwell, 16 state and county elected officials, along with U.S. Rep. David Jolly, asked for permission to use the mosquitoes under a federal law that addresses pandemics.
We want to ensure that our county has every tool at its disposal.
Letter from 16 Pinellas County leaders
“We are writing in the wake of the first identified, non-travel related case of the Zika virus within our county’s borders,” the letter said. “We want to ensure that our county has every tool at its disposal to combat a potential spread of the virus.”
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Earlier this month, the Food and Drug Administration concluded that the mosquitoes would cause no environmental damage, clearing the way for a field trial in the upscale Key Haven neighborhood east of Key West. Oxitec, which manufactures modified Aedes aegypti mosquitoes, has released them in small communities in Brazil and the Cayman Islands, but nowhere in the U.S. Monroe County mosquito officials have put off moving forward until voters weigh in on a referendum included in the November general election.
The request “came out of the blue,” said Oxitec spokeswoman Marcia Austin, who said the company has had informal talks with Miami-Dade County and other state leaders.
To be honest, all the focus has been in South Florida. That seems to be where the need was.
Oxitec spokeswoman Marcia Austin
“There have been state people who have talked to Oxitec and said, ‘If it doesn’t happen down in the Keys how could we make it happen in our area.’ But Pinellas specifically? No,” she said. “To be honest, all the focus has been in South Florida. That seems to be where the need was.”
Pinellas County’s first local Zika case was announced on Tuesday, more than three weeks after the first local transmission was confirmed in Miami-Dade County, where the only active transmission zones in the U.S. — in Wynwood and on Miami Beach — have been identified.
South Miami Mayor Phil Stoddard, a Florida International University biology professor who helped win a ban on using naled and other insecticides that kill butterflies and bees in his city last year, has been urging local officials to use the mosquitoes. On Friday, he said he met with county health staff and Miami Mayor Tomás Regalado to help explain how the technology works.
I’m not a GMO fan just for the record. But this is one of the GMO technologies that is a really good one.
South Miami Mayor Phil Stoddard
“I’m not a GMO fan just for the record, but this is one of the GMO technologies that is a really good one,” he said. “I would really like the county to do exactly what Pinellas County is doing. We should have done this months ago.”
In the Keys, Oxitec has faced fierce opposition to the mosquitoes from some residents who worry the bugs will alter the natural environment. The mosquitoes are bred to include a genetic off-switch that kills their offspring. In the lab, the GMO mosquitoes are given an antidote of tetracycline, a common antibiotic not found in the wild. The company uses the tetracycline to disable the off-switch, so that the insects can live and reproduce in the lab. When male Oxitec mosquitoes are then released and breed with wild females, their offspring carry the gene and quickly die without the exposure to the tetracycline antidote. The invasive Aedes aegypti only mate with their own kind, so no native marsh mosquitoes would be affected, preserving the natural food chain, Oxitec officials say.
“There is nothing in the environment that really feeds on it,” said Derric Nimmo, head of research for Oxitec. “It’s not a keystone species.”
If federal officials were to approve emergency use, Austin said a lab constructed in the Keys in advance of the field study could be quickly ramped up to provide the mosquitoes.
Follow Jenny Staletovich on Twitter @jenstaletovich