Key Haven, Florida is a small community on Raccoon Key an island in the lower keys about a mile east of the island of Key West. The thousand or so people inhabiting Key Haven have long made peace with their bite-size neighbors, the mosquitoes, and are perfectly happy to douse the island with insecticides and their bodies with “Off” to keep the pests at bay.
Residents are not impressed with the thought of another method of mosquito control being considered for their little community. Oxitec, a United Kingdom biotech company has pioneered a better approach to controlling dengue fever and other agricultural pests. By using advanced techniques in genetics, they are hoping to control populations of harmful insects in a sustainable, environmentally friendly and cost-effective way.
If they get approval from the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), Oxitec plans to release millions of genetically modified mosquitoes in Key Haven, making the small community the focal point of the first U.S. trial of the new technology. Oxitec may not realize who they are messing with, according to irate residents of Key Haven. The people living in the Florida Keys are also known as the “Conch Republic,” a reference to what is jokingly referred to as the time in 1982 when the city of Key West, Florida seceded from the U.S. The term was expanded to include all the Keys.
Protests over the proposed release of the GM-mosquitoes started in 2011 and have grown more vocal as the date approaches for the FDA to give its approval of the field trial. Anxiety and suspicion reigns in the community. The Key West City Commission passed a resolution in 2012, objecting to the release of the GM-mosquitoes, but Key Haven is almost a mile away in unincorporated Monroe County.
“This is the first time they are releasing genetically modified mosquitoes in the country, and we have not given our consent,” said Mila de Mier, a Key West resident and real estate agent who helped spearhead a four-year campaign to block the trial until more research is conducted. “People can’t be experimented on without their consent. When the mosquitoes are released, there is no way to recall it.”
Things are heating up. An online petition to stop the release of the mosquitoes has more than 149,000 signatures. And to keep the campaign going, residents have sent 1,600 emails to the Florida Keys Mosquito Control District, run by an independently elected commission. “We feel it’s being jammed down our throats, and we are not getting answers,” said Beth Eliot, a Key Haven real-estate agent. “The company that is saying that this is all safe is the company that stands to profit.” She says nobody supports the project.
Oxitec has one primary goal, and that is to reduce the populations of the Aedes aegypti mosquito. They plan to introduce male mosquitoes with a specially made gene designed to kill their offspring after they mate in the wild. The DNA contains a lethal gene and a fluorescent gene which allows the genetically modified mosquitoes to be identified using a special microscope. Oxitec says the lethal gene will kill the offspring.
Key Haven is not the first field trial that Oxitec has done. More than 70 million Oxitec mosquitoes have been released in field trials in the Cayman Islands, Malaysia, Brazil and, most recently, Panama. According to Oxitec and its academic and governmental collaborators, reports show that mosquito populations have been reduced by 90 percent in the areas where they have conducted field trials.
Critics say the residents of key Haven are being used as guinea pigs, without their permission to eradicate mosquitoes when they don’t even have a dengue fever problem in the first place. Is it only because they are a secluded community located on a small island? Key Haven thinks so.