Florida Keys voting on genetically-modified mosquito plan.

FiveThirtyEight Science has an in-depth article on a genetic reponse to the Zika threat and the scientific stakes of ballots cast in Florida’s southernmost county:

This unusual landscape is what makes Key Haven an ideal place to conduct the Oxitec trial; the company needs a research area that can be split into three defined but contiguous sections: a test zone where the mosquitoes would be released, a buffer zone, and a control zone that would be free of modified mosquitoes. The island already has plenty of Aedes aegypti, according to the Mosquito Control District. Zika is also on its mainland doorstep; 155 people were known to have been infected with the virus locally as of Oct. 13.

Although the study’s goal is ostensibly to determine whether the company’s genetically engineered male mosquitoes will mate with the wild female Aedes aegypti in the area, Derric Nimmo says that the modified mosquitoes’ mating viability has already been proven in studies in Brazil, Panama and the Cayman Islands. Nimmo is a principal scientist for Oxitec; he has been with the company for 11 years, and he led research efforts in both the Cayman Islands and Brazil. “The trial is to show it works in the U.S., not to show that it works. I’ve already shown that it works,” Nimmo said. A U.S. trial is required before Oxitec could gain FDA approval and be allowed to enter the U.S. market.

Board Chairman Phil Goodman doesn’t think there should be a vote. He worries that it will establish a precedent of letting the public vote on mosquito-control techniques. He’s also worried that politics are getting in the way of public health (three of the five board seats are up for election in November, the same seats held by the three commissioners who voted to hold the referendum and agreed to be bound by its results, though one incumbent isn’t running for re-election). “Our job is public health, not public opinion,” Goodman said. “I feel like I’m very well informed of this, I think our board is very well informed. It’s unfortunate that this got political. We don’t have one of the best mosquito controls in the world because we have to ask the opinion of everyone for everything we do.”

Mila de Mier, a real estate agent who made herself the face of the opposition when she started a petition on Change.org that has garnered signatures from about 170,000 people (the majority of whom aren’t from the Keys), is worried that the trial will establish a precedent about the use of genetically modified organisms. “No matter what, when we’re talking about biotech, this is about setting the standard between the government, local government, the community and the company. For good or for bad, our little community is in the front line of setting the standard of this relationship.”

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