Palm Beach Post: “Florida lawmakers call for genetically modified mosquitoes”

TALLAHASSEE — With Congress showing no signs of breaking its long deadlock over funding to fight the Zika virus, Florida lawmakers Wednesday threw in behind a new weapon — Franken-skeeters.
A majority of Florida House members asked federal health officials to approve releasing genetically modified mosquitoes in the state to reduce the risk of more cases of the Zika virus. Florida has already reported more than 700 cases, including 56 that could be linked to local mosquitoes.

Led by Incoming House Speaker Richard Corcoran, R-Land O’ Lakes, and Rep. Janet Cruz, D-Tampa, who becomes her party’s House leader after the November elections, 61 House members sent a letter to U.S. Health and Human Services Secretary Sylvia Burwell requesting emergency action to fast-track the modified insects with the colorful nickname.

“We must find and utilize new strategies to both curb the spread of the virus and prevent additional outbreaks,” the Florida leaders wrote.

Palm Beach County Reps. MaryLynn Magar, R-Tequesta, Bill Hager, R-Delray Beach, Rep. Lori Berman, D-Lantana, and Kevin Rader, D-Delray Beach, were among those signing.

+Richard Corcoran photo

The British company Oxitec has developed technology to mutate millions of Aedes aegypti mosquitoes in a lab setting, deploying a synthetic protein that kills their offspring before they can emerge from larvae as adults and transmit the Zika virus.

Last month, Oxitec received a federal go-ahead for a pilot project in the Florida Keys.

If wild female mosquitoes mate with sterile males, the population dies off rapidly. The approach has been used in Brazil and Caribbean islands with some success, but questions remain about whether it would make much difference in Florida.

Mosquito populations would have to be narrowly targeted, and a large metropolitan area like Miami could prove a challenge, officials have said.

“If the federal government follows its normal bureaucratic processes, it might take years for Florida to access this technology. Such a delay presents an unnecessary health risk to the people of our state. Red tape is never an acceptable justification for the loss of human life,” the Florida lawmakers wrote.

The letter was sent as the U.S. Senate — just back from a two-month recess — defaulted to what has been its familiar position of deadlocking over Zika funding.

A $1.1 billion proposal failed Tuesday in a 52-46 vote after Republican leaders included a provision dropping Planned Parenthood from the list of providers getting new funding to combat the spread of the virus, which can be sexually transmitted.

Democrats wouldn’t go along with the move against Planned Parenthood. Florida Republican Sen. Marco Rubio voted for the measure, while the state’s other senator, Democrat Bill Nelson, voted against it.

Rubio, who is running for re-election, has said that he would support the entire $1.9 billion Zika funding package proposed in February by President Obama — but not taken up by the GOP-controlled Congress.

Rubio’s opponent, U.S. Rep. Patrick Murphy, D-Jupiter, has ridiculed him for failing to get those in his own party to drop their stand against Planned Parenthood.

While many Florida members of Congress have clamored for action, Rep. David Jolly, R-Belleair Bluffs, underscored the push Wednesday by bringing a jar with about 100 mosquitoes to the House floor, warning that the University of South Florida needs funding to continue research into the virus.