TIME Infectious Disease

Genetically Modified Mosquitoes Divide Florida Residents

It remains to be seen if the trial will move forward

Residents of the Florida Keys are split over whether they agree that genetically modified mosquitoes have a place in fighting the spread of vector-born diseases.

The people of Key Haven, which is where a proposed mosquito trial would take place, voted against it. But residents of broader Monroe Country voted in favor of the modified mosquitoes testing. Ultimately, the decision to move forward will be up to the Florida Keys Mosquito Control Board. Given the split vote, the future of the project remains uncertain.

Oxitec, the company that developed the mosquitoes, has engineered male mosquitoes to pass a fatal gene on to their offspring, which kills them before they reach adulthood. When released into the environment, Oxitec’s mosquitoes can, in ideal circumstances, suppress the proliferation of mosquitoes and ultimately cut down on the mosquito-borne diseases.

When Oxitec’s trial was initially considered in the Florida Keys, there was an ongoing outbreak of dengue. Florida also also seen some cases of Zika in the Miami-Dade area. Oxitec says its other field trials in countries like Brazil, Panama and the Cayman Islands have led to over a 90% drop in the local Aedes aegypti mosquito population—the very mosquitoes that transmit so many diseases.

Some residents of the Keys have told TIME that they are concerned about the effect the mosquitoes could have on the environment. “As a country we have a tendency to overreact and then do things that we later regret and wish we could take back,” Michael Welber, a Florida Keys resident and environmental activist, told TIME.

Still, the plan may move forward. “I am very pleased,” says Oxitec CEO Hadyn Parry. “We expect to see the same results [from this trial] as we’ve seen everywhere else.”

If the Florida Keys Mosquito Control Board decides in favor of Oxitec, Parry says the trial could kick off as soon as January.

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