The plan to release genetically modified mosquitoes as a test to reduce the population of Aedes aegypti mosquitos linked to the transmission of Zika was temporarily stalled in Florida when a neighborhood opposed the move in a vote on Tuesday.
In a non-binding referendum, 65 percent of the residents of Key Haven, the neighborhood where the test was supposed to occur, voted against the plan. By contrast, the rest of the Monroe county's residents voted 58 percent in favor of the release, reported the Miami Herald.
A "yes" vote would have been a significant step toward combating the spread of Zika, say proponents of the referendum, especially in Florida, the state with the highest number of locally-transmitted cases in the United States. While genetically modified mosquitoes have been tested in other countries where the disease has infected a larger number of people, resistance remains especially in places where the observed need fails to outweigh concerns about use of an “unnatural” intervention.
"We are not going to be laboratory mice," Jitka Olsak, a 10-year resident of the neighborhood told The New York Times in August. "Nature takes care of its own things."
Zika, she said, didn’t scare her as much as "scientists tinkering with animals."
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s latest data, there have been 139 locally-acquired Zika cases in the US, all of which occurred in Florida. In addition, there have been reports of more than 200,000 in Brazil and 90,000 in Colombia, as reported by PRI.
Here’s how British research firm Oxitec's plan would work in Florida, as The Christian Science Monitor previously reported:
The idea is to release the genetically engineered mosquitoes into the wild, where they will breed with healthy females and produce offspring that die before reaching adulthood. In theory, only male mosquitoes, which don't bite humans, are released, and the company has successfully tested the model in Brazil and the Cayman Islands.
When it was first brought up earlier this year by Oxitec and approved by the Food and Drug Administration, it spurred protests from locals in the form of a Change.org petition and Facebook page. They referred to the mosquitoes as "mutant bugs" that could cause "collateral damage to ecosystems."
The residents voted against the measure after weighing the unknown ecological risk against the lack of locally transmitted Zika cases in the county.
Key Haven had chosen because its environment provided a "perfect trial location," the company told Kaiser Health News. If the test goes well in the area, it could potentially be used in Miami-Dade County, Florida’s most populous county that does have confirmed locally-transmitted cases.
According to previous reporting by The Monitor, some scientists responded to the public fears by stating that the genetically modified mosquitos so far haven’t shown an impact on the environment and that the company has been careful with its trials.
Other solutions tried by the state to target mosquitoes, such as aerial insecticide spraying and use of the pesticide "naled," have also attracted opposition for its undesirable consequences, ranging from ineffectiveness to possible health effects.
Genetically modified mosquitoes are already used in countries where disease such as Zika, dengue, and malaria are a major concern. New strategies like gene-editing and manipulation of bacteria in mosquito populations are being researched globally, as MIT Technology Review reports.
The final decision on whether or not to carry on with the genetically altered mosquito test will lie with the Florida Keys Mosquito Control Board, expected to meet later this month.