The Florida Keys offer an ideal place for researchers to test mosquito-fighting efforts now more than ever as panic over the Zika virus spreads.
However, some residents don't want their neighborhoods to be used as testing grounds for a new initiative involving genetically modified mosquitoes.
As the Zika threat unfolded last year, Florida Keys officials ramped up efforts to keep the disease-carrying Aedes aegypti mosquitoes out of their islands. They partnered with Oxitec, a company in the United Kingdom, with a plan to release genetically modified mosquitoes in certain neighborhoods that would wipe away huge chunks of the mosquito population.
Mila de Mier, a realtor and hospitality business owner in Key West, started an online petition against potential trials and has been a vocal representative of residents opposed to initiative. The petition has more than 168,000 signatures, more than double the population of the entire Florida Keys.
De Mier said she and other concerned community members are waiting for more research, especially regarding long-term effects on humans and the environment before she could get behind the trials.
In November, Florida Keys officials will hold a referendum on the subject. The vote is non-binding, but The Key West Citizen reports that the majority of the district's board of commissioners will adhere to the outcome of the vote.
The vote could affect the likelihood of Oxitec trials taking place in other parts of the United States.
"We are the forefront to set up a standard," de Mier told AccuWeather. "At this point, it's almost like a political campaign."
She said Oxitec has been calling residents to lobby for their vote ahead of the referendum.
The initiative has been in the works for five years, Michael Doyle, executive of the Florida Keys Mosquito Control District, said. When dengue fever and Chickyunga emerged as a serious threat, the board started looking at what they could do to keep locals and tourists safe.
Growing fear over Zika has expedited efforts to start trials, he said.
The Florida Keys rely heavily on tourism, and a widespread mosquito threat could not only hurt locals but also keep tourists from spending their money in the area.
Oxitec claims they can produce male mosquitoes "with the intent of suppressing the population," the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) said.
Scientists infused a new gene into the laboratory-produced mosquitoes that halts the reproductive cycle. Known as a "self-limiting" gene, when a genetically modified mosquito breeds with a female mosquito, 95 percent of the offspring die before reaching adulthood, Oxitec said.
Millions of mosquitoes could be released each week, depending on the size of the pre-existing population.
Aedes aegypti mosquitoes breed only with each other and there is no risk of the gene spreading, Oxitec said.
Male mosquitoes do not bite, but the gene passed onto any offspring is non-toxic and non-allergenic, Oxitec said.
The FDA released a preliminary "Finding of No Significant Impact," which was then submitted to the public for comment. The FDA has been reviewing comments since the period closed in mid-May.
Doyle told AccuWeather that he feels those who are against the trials are reacting on a "gut-level response" without looking at the facts, he said.
Oxitec has been responsible for most of the cost so far. If launched, the funds typically used for chemical repellants would go towards the genetically modified mosquitos.