The Florida Keys Mosquito Control District board agreed this week to move forward on the release of thousands of genetically altered mosquitoes, but the test will not occur any time soon because the agency has yet to find a government regulatory body comfortable with permitting the activity.
State and federal government agencies have told the Mosquito Control District that they do not have jurisdiction over the emerging technology. The release would be the first-ever of genetically altered mosquitoes in the United States.
The district plans to introduce Aedes aegypti mosquitoes modified to produce nonviable offspring, thus reducing the population of the mosquito species that carries dengue fever. The district has partnered with the British company Oxitec on the project, and plans to introduce the mosquitoes in the Keys sometime in 2012.
The lack of jurisdiction by federal and state agencies may force the district to move forward on the test release without a higher government's approval. That is something Mosquito Control Executive Director Michael Doyle said he does not want to do.
Doyle said he wants a government agency to review the technology before the district tests it "to make sure there are no potential health risks from genetically altered mosquitoes." He said he is comfortable with the environmental effects, because the test would only involve the one species of mosquitoes, which account for less than 1 percent of mosquitoes in the Keys. The species plays no role in pollinating plants.
"We are not prepared at this time to do it on our own," Doyle said. "There are a few unanswered questions. ... If we do this on our own it could make it harder to obtain permits later."
Doyle has sent letters to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the U.S. Department of Agriculture, U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service, the Environmental Protection Agency, the Food and Drug Administration and other agencies. Doyle said officials from those agencies say they do not have jurisdiction.
The Department of Agriculture has permitted the use of genetically altered insects, but that was for agricultural purposes, not eradicating mosquitoes, Doyle said.
Ultimately, the district may move forward without a permit, which was the case in 2009 and 2010 in the Cayman Islands. Oxitec released 3 million altered mosquitoes in the Cayman Islands in 2009 and 2010. Doyle called the release a success in fighting the spread of dengue fever.
The Mosquito Control board supports the test release, viewing it as a better alternative than pesticides.
"There is a lot of upside to this," board member Jack Bridges told The Citizen after the board's Tuesday meeting. "It would target only 1 percent of the mosquitoes that are capable of spreading 100 percent of dengue fever. They (Oxitec) seem to have a proven track record; that is positive. [Modified insects] have been used for agricultural purposes, just not for mosquitoes."
Board member Phil Goodman also spoke in support of the test, calling the technology a better option than pesticides.
However, some residents have expressed concern about possible long-term consequences. Keys resident Michael Welber fears that altering mosquitoes could lead to a mosquito that is more resistant to pesticides.
"There is a great unknown with this," Welber said. "Before we plunge ahead I think it needs to be thoroughly reviewed."
The genetically engineered mosquitoes would be bred in a lab until adulthood, after which the males would be released into the wild.
In theory, the males, which don't bite, would mate and then die off. The offspring would die early in life -- in the late larvae or pupae stage -- and the mosquito population in a given area would theoretically be suppressed.
The district and Oxitec intend to release 5,000 to 10,000 genetically engineered mosquitoes during a two-week period in an undisclosed 36-square-acre block near the Key West Cemetery, where the first case of dengue was reported.
The initial trial is expected to last about two months. The mosquitoes will be dusted with a fluorescent powder for identification purposes and then trapped to see how far they are flying.