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Keys Mosquito Control Board Approves First U.S. Trial Of Genetically Modified Mosquitoes

The Florida Keys Mosquito Control Board approved a trial Tuesday of genetically modified mosquitoes on the island chain.

This would be the first U.S. trial of the genetically modified Aedes aegypti mosquito, which can transmit diseases like Zika and dengue.

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The trial won't take place until next year and the exact site of the release has not been chosen.

The board heard hours of testimony from people in the Keys, and around the country, both supporting and opposing the trial.

Ashley Johnson of Grassy Key was one of the supporters.

"Number one, I want my kids to be safe and mosquitoes are large carriers of diseases," she said. "This is a better alternative for us and the environment than insecticides sprayed frequently, which we already do. Science shows it is for the greater good and there is no harm to humans or the environment. We are simply running away from the term genetically modified that has been villainized."

Another Keys resident, Anna Davis, said she had questions that had not been answered.

"I understand this is a trial because they don't know what's going to happen" she said. "So we're literally going to become an experiment here and I absolutely do not give my consent for that."

Dana Perls, food and technology program manager with Friends of the Earth, said the proposal "is being watched across the U.S. with shock and fear. It is critical that the Florida Keys Mosquito Control Board be on the right side of history and not accept this application."

Fishing guide Steve Friedman said the board should not undertake "a radical movement like this" during a pandemic.

"We've already been dealing with environmental disasters over the past 10, 20 years including the Deepwater Horizon, Lake Okeechobee and algae blooms. We don't need to create another environmental disaster," he said.

The board voted 4-1 in favor of the agreement with Oxitec, the British-based company that makes the mosquitoes.

The genetic modification means only male mosquitoes — which do not bite — survive. The released male mosquitoes breed with wild females, passing along that self-limiting gene.

Board member Stanley Zuba said people who oppose the trial are "using half-truths, conspiracy theories, fear mongering, billboards and threats of economic ruin to our island chain to scare people into being against this study."

Zuba, a pediatrician, said he saw similarities with the anti-vaccination movement "such as misinformation on side effects, misinformation on vaccine ingredients, deaths or disabilities due to vaccines and conspiracy theories relating to big corporations and 'big pharma.' Unfortunately many children have died due to preventable diseases due to this misinformation being disseminated as facts and thus scaring people — like the people that spoke tonight — into not vaccinating their children."

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Nancy Klingener covers the Florida Keys for WLRN. Since moving to South Florida in 1989, she has worked for the Miami Herald, Solares Hill newspaper and the Monroe County Public Library.