Mighty Mutants

Florida voters just approved the release of mutant mosquitoes to combat Zika

Elena Scotti/FUSION

Zika virus may no longer be top of mind for most Americans, but in Florida the devastating, mosquito-borne virus has continued to spread. There have been 1,133 Zika infections confirmed in Florida this year, 191 of which were locally transmitted. Officials have sprayed hefty amounts of pesticides and advised residents to cover up and wear bug spray. They have also considered releasing genetically modified Zika-fighting mosquitoes to help combat the spread, but that decision wound up being placed in the hands of Florida voters on Election Day. And the preliminary results are in.

Whether Florida should do a trial with mutant mosquitoes has been debated for much of the last year, but giving the green light was not ultimately in the hands of state public health officials or politicians. After the Food and Drug Administration gave the project the okay in August, the Florida Keys Mosquito Control District got the final say, and a majority of its board said it would vote in line with the preference of Florida voters.

On Tuesday, voters in the Keys voted by a solid majority to go ahead with a plan proposed by British biotech firm Oxitec to release genetically engineered male mosquitoes in Key Haven, a suburb of Key West. More than 57% of the 40,000 votes cast in the Keys favored the project.

The referendum that Keys residents voted up on Tuesday was non-binding, meaning that later this month the Florida Keys Mosquito Control Board could still decide to either go forward with the project or abandon it. Three of the five commissioners on the board have promised to decide in line with voters’ wishes. But while a majority of Keys residents voted in favor of the project, 65% of the 639 voters in Key Haven, where the trial would be conducted, voted against it. It’s unclear what the board will decide with the community most directly affected by the trial casting their ballots against it.

Regardless of the outcome, the referendum raises crucial questions about who should be tasked with science-based decision making. In the Keys, fear and fiction played into the local discussion as much as—if not more than—legitimate concern.

Oxitec’s plan relies on male mosquitoes that have been given a lethal gene that kills off any offspring they might have with a wild female. Residents have many concerns about the GMO blood suckers, from environmental concerns stemming from killing off the local mosquito population to the fear that the small number of engineered female mosquitoes—which bite people; males don’t—inevitably released could have health effects on humans (though testing has shown their bites are not any different from a wild mosquito).

Unlike a love of Jimmy Buffet and sugary cocktails, this fear-based reading of science is not a Key West phenomenon. A recent Pew Research Center survey asked 4,726 people how they feel about gene editing and other human-enhancing technologies. More than 60% said that they were “very” or “somewhat” worried about such technologies.

“Are you in favor of the Florida Keys Mosquito Control District conducting an effectiveness trial in Key Haven using genetically modified mosquitoes to suppress an invasive mosquito that carries mosquito-borne diseases?” the referendum asked.

Ballots often ask voters to weigh in on topics that can seem dizzying and confusing to the average citizen. But in the Keys, voters were asked to make a decision about science that might even seem confusing to some scientists. (Within the scientific community, most concerns tend towards whether Oxitec’s solution is really as effective as the company says it is.)

On the ballot was not so much Oxitec’s initiative, but whether the local community had a firm enough grasp of science to understand it. At stake, was the future of genetically modified mosquitoes in the entire U.S.

Regardless of how things turn out for the Keys trial, politicians are desperate to give Oxitec a try. In September, a bipartisan coalition of Florida politicians petitioned the federal government to grant an emergency use of Oxitec’s technology to areas affected by Zika, saying delaying its use poses “an unnecessary health risk.” Oxitec representatives are slated to meet with Miami Beach officials later this month about potentially releasing the mosquitoes there. But Oxitec would likely be required to undergo a separate FDA review and environmental assessment to go ahead with that project, meaning a long wait to see if this promising technology actually works.