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The Florida Keys approve a trial release of genetically modified mosquitoes to combat Zika

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Other tests have reduced mosquito populations by 90 percent

Mosquito (shutterstock)

Last summer, the Food and Drug Administration gave the go-ahead for the Florida Keys Mosquito Control District to test the use of a genetically modified mosquito in an effort to combat Zika and other illnesses transmitted by the insects. In the recent election, Florida Keys voters gave approval for the district to conduct field tests, despite reservations from some community members.

The FKMCD put forward a pair of resolutions before voters in Monroe County and the community of Key Haven on November 8th. While Key Haven voters rejected the proposal, Monroe County voters approved it. As a result, the FKMCD won’t hold trials in Key Haven, but will determine other testing locations around the county. In a meeting held by the FKMCD yesterday, officials began laying the groundwork for upcoming tests.

Some Florida Keys residents waged a campaign to block the release of modified mosquitoes, though the FDA found that the release of the insects would have no "significant impacts" on human health or the surrounding environment. Since the end of July, more than 200 people have been infected by the Zika virus, and while no cases have been reported in the keys, the mosquitoes that transmit the disease do carry other illnesses, such as Dengue fever.

Aedes aegypti is one of the chief culprits behind the spread of the Zika virus and other mosquito-borne diseases, and biotechnology company Oxitec Ltd. has created a modified strain called OX513A. When male OX513A mosquitos mate, their offspring die. The company found that their modified mosquitos help to reduce the populations of Aedes aegypti by up to 90 percent from tests conducted in Brazil and the Cayman Islands. Such reductions could allow for reduced uses of pesticides and other control measures.

As the World Health Organization rescinded its emergency declaration for the Zika virus earlier this week, researchers are shifting course to focus on long-term, sustained efforts against the epidemic that has spread to 69 countries in the last year. In the months and years ahead, controlling mosquitos — which are a major vector for Zika infections — will be an essential practice. While there are legitimate concerns over the deployment of GM mosquitos, their use has the potential to reduce the animal reservoir that hosts diseases such as Zika, Malaria, and Dengue fever.