November 14, 2016
Written by MARLEY WALKER
This post originally appeared in Wired.
ON TUESDAY NIGHT, Zika’s fate was on the ballot. A Florida Keys county elected to have British biotech company Oxitec release millions of genetically modified mosquitoes to combat the virus.
Aedes aegypti mosquitoes are some of the world’s deadliest animals: Carriers of yellow fever, dengue, chikungunya, and, now, Zika, a disease that causes severe birth defects like microcephaly in the fetuses of women infected with the virus. In August, the Food and Drug Administration approved a field trial to test the modified mosquitoes’ ability to cull populations of Zika-carrying bugs. But the trial needed voter approval to proceed. On Tuesday, the constituents of Monroe County, encompassing the Florida Keys and a southwestern chip on the state’s mainland, gave it the go-ahead.
And approve they did, mostly. “There were two precincts in the whole county that voted against the genetically modified mosquito,” says Phil Goodman, Chairman of the Florida Keys Mosquito Control District. And one of those was Key Haven, where Oxitec had planned to release the insects. The bill was non-binding, which means the district isn’t obligated to fulfill the mandate. But while the town voted nay, the county voted yea. As a result, Goodman says, they’re going to stick with the trial run, but the board will try to work with the FDA to find a different release site. “We’ll be looking at where mosquitoes are, and come up with some other sites of where to release them based on where people voted yes,” he says.
The FDA approved a 22 months-long experimental release period, and the board will vote on both the start date and the new township to release the mosquitos on November 19. Oxitec’s engineered insects—all male—have a gene that ties up the cell’s resources to produce an innocuous protein, effectively disrupting normal growth pattern. Any offspring sired by Oxitec’s bugs will die as larvae—before they grow wings and proboscises to transmit the Zika virus. That could be a viable supplement to spraying insecticides, which are damaging for the environment (and many bugs are immune to, anyway).