Residents in Florida will be asked to vote on a trial of genetically modified mosquitoes on US Election Day.
The tiny suburb of Key Haven has become the focus for a fierce debate between scientists and anti-GM opposition.
British biotech firm Oxitec wants to evaluate the effectiveness of their engineered mosquitoes for combating the rising threat of Zika virus.
The proposed release is being seen as an important test for the technology’s acceptance in the US.
Zika is transmitted by the Aedes aegypti mosquito; Florida has reported more than 1,100 cases this year.
A non-binding poll in Monroe County, on Florida’s southern tip, will ask: “Are you in favour of the Florida Keys Mosquito Control District conducting an effectiveness trial in Monroe County, Florida, using genetically modified mosquitoes to suppress an invasive mosquito that carries mosquito-borne diseases?”
The county comprises the Florida Keys and a large part of the Everglades National Park. Voters in Key Haven will be asked specifically about the release of GM mosquitoes in their town.
The idea is that Oxitec’s male mosquitoes (which do not bite) mate with wild females, but genetic modification ensures that any offspring do not survive until adulthood. Successive releases over a 17-hectare region of the neighbourhood should cause Aedes aegypti populations to crash.
The Zika epidemic in South and Central America has been linked to birth defects – including microcephaly – and foetal death. There have been fears that the virus could spread through the United States, from parts of Florida and Texas to Hawaii.
Dr Derric Nimmo, who is leading Oxitec’s proposed trial in Key Haven, told BBC News: “The [Florida Keys Mosquito Control District board] has done lots of surveys around the Keys showing 60-80% of people are in favour of the project. One of the board members asked for a non-binding referendum attached to this election to add to the others.”
Aedes aegypti is an urban mosquito that can breed in bodies of standing water as small as a bottle cap. Its larvae can find refuge indoors, beyond the reach of insecticide spraying programmes.
“Key Haven was chosen about four years ago, based on the fact that it’s surrounded by water and it’s an almost perfect scientific site where you have a control area where you don’t do any releases, an area where you can do releases, and a buffer zone in between. You don’t want wild female mosquitoes coming into the area, because they will affect the quality of the results,” said Dr Nimmo.
In August, after reviewing the proposed trial, the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) published a finding of no significant impact (FONSI) – which gave Oxitec a regulatory green light.
Oxitec has previously conducted five trials in three different countries – the Cayman Islands, Panama and Brazil, where Dr Nimmo says, the company achieves reductions in mosquito populations of 90% or more.
“The aim is to get the same result in the Keys,” said Dr Nimmo.
But a proportion of local residents want the trial cancelled; they are concerned about potential unanticipated consequences of releasing lab insects into the wild.
Mila de Mier, a Florida realtor who has founded an opposition group called Never Again, told BBC News: “When I first heard about the technology, I thought it was a really good idea… but as we began to learn more about it, the more questions we had.
“This technology is treated as an animal drug, but we believe it should be treated as a human drug.”
She added her concern that “when you reduce the population of Aedes aegypti, another aggressive mosquito species could come in and become established – like the Asian tiger mosquito”.
“There’s not going to be any agency supervising this.”
But Dr Nimmo stressed: “We’ve had six years of releases, involving millions of male mosquitoes, and there have been no reports of any adverse effects.”
“It’s important we’re as transparent as possible… we’ve been trying to give people the facts and information so they can make an informed choice.”
The results of the November 8 poll will be put to board members in charge of the Florida Keys Mosquito Control District, who will use the results to decide whether to proceed with the trial at a meeting on 19 November.
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