Pinellas Co. considers GMO mosquitoes to fight Zika

Evan Lambert reports

- This week, the Florida Department of Health confirmed the first non-travel related case of the Zika virus in Pinellas County. But Pinellas is a big county, with nearly 1-million people packed into 24 different cities and towns, and many want to know where exactly that case of Zika could be.

Congressman David Jolly (R)-Pinellas is among the critics calling for more specifics.

"If you look at Miami, they gave us a 1.5 mile radius, I think that would be appropriate," said Jolly. "We certainly don't want to set off a panic where none is necessary but give the public more information. Let us know the general area of the current case so that we can make decisions for ourselves."

Friday, a bipartisan group of lawmakers, including Jolly, Florida Rep. Chris Sprowls (R)-Pinellas and Pinellas County commissioners, sent a letter to HHS Secretary Sylvia Burwell asking for the authorization to use the mutant mosquitoes. They are currently being prepared for a trial in the Florida Keys.

Rep. Sprowls explained the request, if approved, does not mean the county would automatically use the engineered mosquitoes, but that county officials would have the option if Zika spreads beyond the one non travel-related case.

"Hopefully we don't need any of these tools because it's not an issue. But should we need them then we want to have them," said Rep. Sprowls.

The modified mosquitoes are created by Oxitec, a company based in the UK. Scientists inject non-biting male mosquitoes with a fluorescent tracker and a gene that kills the next generation of mosquitoes. When the males mate with a female of the Aedes aegypti variety, the species most likely to spread Zika, the offspring do not mature and die. The goal is to eliminate much of the population capable of spreading the virus linked to deformities in developing babies.

According to Rep. Sprowls, under current guidelines, the Food and Drug Administration will not allow the mutant mosquitoes to be released in the U.S. until the trial in the Keys is complete. It's on hold because of controversy over the use of the mosquitoes in Monroe County. That's why local lawmakers are asking for an emergency exception.

Rep. Sprowls says he recognizes the concerns over genetically modified organisms, but attributes them to misinformation. He's encouraged by tests with the engineered mosquitoes outside the U.S. in the Cayman Islands and Brazil.

"It's had a very high success rate and should it be something that we could use to get rid of this virus here in Pinellas I want us to be able to do it," said Rep. Sprowls.

Meanwhile, medical professionals, including FOX 13's Dr. Joette Giovinco say the longer state and local officials wait, the more people could be at risk.

"We wish people all over the state were going into their backyards and eradicating standing water but the reality is that's probably not the case," said Giovinco. "People are very busy, they have their day-to-day lives and if they don't really sense a threat to their immediate threat to themselves they may not take action."

Pinellas County mosquito control agrees: mosquitos that carry Zika can breed in even the tiniest amount of water, so the more information about a suspected Zika hot zone, the better.

WATCH: Where, exactly is Zika in Bay Area?

But they say they haven't even told them where the case is.

"If you have a construction site, they put up signs saying please use caution. I think that same kind of message would apply here," said Rob Krueger, entomology and education support specialist for Pinellas County mosquito control. "The thing is, for as much information as we've been putting out there about draining your containers and putting on repellant, the average person seems not to care about it."

Florida's Department of Health says it's still working to pin down exactly where they believe the Pinellas county case may have been contracted.

"One case does not mean active transmission is taking place and that's why the department conducts a thorough investigation by sampling close contacts and community members around each case to determine if additional people are infected," said Florida Department of Health communications director Mara Gambineri. "If DOH finds evidence that ongoing active transmission is occurring in an area, the media and the public will be notified."

Mosquito control officials say everyone needs to do their part: dump out standing water and turn over or remove anything where water can pool. It's also important to pick garbage. The Aedes aegypti mosquito, which carries the Zika virus, can breed in just a tiny amount of water; a bottle cap or even a discarded potato chip bag are perfect places for their larvae to grow. 

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