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Let Florida use Frankenskeeters, lawmakers tell feds

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A throng of Democratic and Republican state House members — 61 in all — are asking the federal government to let Florida deploy genetically modified mosquitoes in the battle against the Zika virus.

“This modified mosquito, developed by the company Oxitec, has proven exceptionally effective,” said their letter to U.S. Health and Human Services Secretary Sylvia Burwell, also signed by Republican Speaker-designate Richard Corcoran and Democratic Leader-designate Janet Cruz.

Where the insects have been used, they “reduced the target mosquito population by 90 percent without harming either the human population or the environment,” it said. “However, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has not given final approval for its use in this country.”

The letter went out Tuesday, the same day U.S. Senate Democrats for the third time blocked a $1.1 billion Zika funding package and an accompanying Veterans Affairs spending bill over restrictions on Planned Parenthood.

“We strongly urge you to declare a public health emergency and grant an Emergency Use Authorization,” the letter asks Burwell.

Oxitec, a British biotechnology company, built a facility in Marathon to raise the mosquitoes, jokingly referred to by internet wags as “Frankenskeeters.”

They work by breeding with non-altered females, who then lay eggs that don’t hatch, reducing the Aedes aegypti mosquito population that spreads the virus.

The effects of Zika are not very severe for most adults, but for pregnant women, the virus can cause a serious birth defect called microcephaly and other severe health problems for babies.

Zika is spread by mosquitoes but can also be contracted through sexual contact. As of Tuesday, the state’s Department of Health tallied 633 reported cases of Zika infection, including 80 pregnant women.

The state also has marked areas in Miami-Dade County where “active local Zika virus transmission” is occurring, as opposed to travelers who get the virus abroad.

The FDA last month published its final finding that releasing modified mosquitoes into the wild would not cause significant impact to the environment. The firm has used genetically modified mosquitoes in Brazil, the Cayman Islands, and Panama for several years.

The lawmakers’ letter also was addressed to FDA Commissioner Robert Califf, with courtesy copies to National Economic Council Director Jeff Zients, Deputy Homeland Security Advisor Amy Pope, and National Security Advisor Susan Rice.

“We ask you to stand by the people of Florida in our time of need and use your legal authority to grant us access to a new source of hope in the fight against the spread of this terrible virus,” the letter says.

Material from The Associated Press was used in this post, reprinted with permission

Before joining Florida Politics, journalist and attorney James Rosica was state government reporter for The Tampa Tribune. He attended journalism school in Washington, D.C., working at dailies and weekly papers in Philadelphia after graduation. Rosica joined the Tallahassee Democrat in 1997, later moving to the courts beat, where he reported on the 2000 presidential recount. In 2005, Rosica left journalism to attend law school in Philadelphia, afterwards working part time for a public-interest law firm. Returning to writing, he covered three legislative sessions in Tallahassee for The Associated Press, before joining the Tribune’s re-opened Tallahassee bureau in 2013. He can be reached at jim@floridapolitics.com.

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