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Florida’s Trial Of Genetically Modified Mosquitoes Will Probably Happen

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On Nov. 8, Florida Keys voters weighed in on whether they wanted to move forward with a test of genetically modified mosquitoes somewhere on the small chain of islands that sweeps off the Florida mainland. Voters were asked whether they supported a proposed experiment in which a company would release genetically modified male mosquitoes to mate with wild females. The lab-grown insects produce offspring that don’t survive to adulthood, and the hope is that by reducing the overall population of mosquitoes, the effort would also reduce humans’ risk of contracting the viruses mosquitoes carry, such as Zika and dengue. Two groups of Keys residents voted and were split over the research, meaning the trial will likely go forward, but not quite as planned.

The genetically modified mosquitoes became a controversial issue in the area in the months leading up to the vote, as we detailed in October. Supporters believed it was a promising way to fight a pernicious and stubborn pest without resorting to potent insecticides, while opponents thought the unknown risks of the new technology outweighed its potential benefits. The Florida Keys Mosquito Control District, which oversees mosquito-control efforts, had been in talks with Oxitec, the company that makes the genetically modified mosquitoes, for several years, but residents’ concern led the Mosquito Control District Board of Commissioners to hold a nonbinding public vote on whether to go forward with the experiment. In Key Haven, the small community within the Keys where the trial was slated to take place, 65.2 percent of voters were against the release. In the county as a whole, however, the majority of voters — 57.8 percent — were in favor.

On Saturday, the board of commissioners voted to sign an agreement with Oxitec. Because the vote was split, the Mosquito Control District will look for a different place on the islands to run the test, board chairman Phil Goodman said. That means the trial is not yet a sure thing; Oxitec must go back to the U.S. Food and Drug Administration and get revised approval to conduct the trial somewhere else in the county. The earliest the research could start is 2018, said Goodman, who is cautiously optimistic about the chances of the trial taking place. “There’s still a lot of ifs out there.”

Anna Maria Barry-Jester is a senior reporter at Kaiser Health News and California Healthline, and formerly a reporter for FiveThirtyEight.