Together with my wife and our newly released soldier son, I just spent some time in the Old Country. It was a chance to visit our daughter, a Jewish Agency campus emissary, and for all four of us to spend a much-needed week chilling in the Florida Keys.
The Keys, let me tell you, are Heaven on Earth. The sands are white powder. The waters are azure blue. The palm trees sway and swish in the soothing breeze, and their ripening coconuts gently tap out island rhythms.
Tropical drinks served with little paper umbrellas and generous portions of rum complete the overall feeling of well-being, and it’s easy for an Israeli whose work generally focuses on death, destruction and other varieties of unfortunate news to lie back and gratefully tune it all out.
But there’s unfortunate news for some of the locals in Monroe County, the area encompassing the islands and islets that extend south and west beyond the Florida mainland, starting at Key Largo and ending some 160 kilometers later at Key West. It seems there’s a certain mosquito-borne virus that puts some people at risk no less than do wild-eyed Palestinians with sharp knives sprinting down Israeli boulevards.
ZIKA HAS the makings of a new Ebola. It’s got people in a tizzy, starting in Brazil, where it first made its mark and where the 2016 Summer Olympics are set to get under way in August in Rio de Janeiro.
Aside from some fever and discomfort, the virus is generally harmless – unless you’re pregnant, in which case a bite by the Aedes aegypti, which also transmits malaria, dengue and yellow fever, can lead to serious birth defects, including microcephaly, where the baby’s brain is underdeveloped and the skull left abnormally small and deformed. To expectant parents, Zika is as frightening as a confused 13-year-old rampaging down the street with a steak knife.
We were warned before we left: “Zika’s been heading north, to the Keys and even beyond. You sure you want to go?” Hell, we replied, there are sprays and roll-ons.
We know of no such simple antidotes to steak knives.
What’s the big deal? Well, sprays and roll-ons seem to be the least of it, because Oxitec, a British firm that genetically modifies insects for pest control, now wants to release swarms of its OX513A mosquito in Key Haven, an upscale neighborhood on Raccoon Key, next to Key West.
For reality-show aficionados, Key Haven was the locale for the 17th season of MTV’s Real World, the prototype for our own irritating and mind-numbing Big Brother program, which for several months at a time places total strangers in a house filled with cameras and microphones to see what happens. As the contestants – whose IQs rarely seem to reach into double digits – are brought in from elsewhere for these shows, this should not be held against the good conchs (that’s not a typo) of Key Haven, many of whom have fully functioning gray matter and are up in arms over Oxitec’s plan to use them and much of their fair islet as a living lab.
Oxitec says OX513A is a male mosquito modified to cause the offspring of the female mosquitoes it impregnates to die off. As male mosquitoes do not bite (it’s the females that do, using human blood to assist in the egg-laying process), Oxitec insists there’s no chance that anyone will be bitten by a mutant.
It also points to a US Food and Drug Administration statement released in March saying that “there are unlikely to be any adverse effects on non-target species, including humans.... The FDA has therefore made the preliminary finding that the proposed field trial would not individually or cumulatively have a significant effect on the quality of the human environment....”
But the law of averages being what it is (and let’s not forget Murphy’s Law), there are many in Key Haven who fear that among the 22 million OX513As to be let loose, there are bound to be… well, at least a few females that underwent the same mutation process. Even the FDA says it’s likely. The upshot among the project’s opponents is that if anyone is bitten by a rogue female – and worse, if any of these females are impregnated by non-OX513A males and then lay their own eggs – the results could make Zika look like a day at the fair.
It seems that the British firm initially sought permission from the city government of Key West to use an area of the island for its experiment, but the local commissioners turned it down. Nearby Key Haven, however, is unincorporated, meaning its governance is conducted at the whim of bureaucrats who might be far away – too far to be concerned about the odd female mosquito modified into an OX513A by mistake.
With some on Key West complaining that they don’t understand why the residents of Key Haven are so upset, the latter posted the following on their Facebook community page: “For those of you in Key West that think we are holding up technology for the magic bullet to cure Zika by opposing this human experiment, you should know, YOUR city commissioners voted this down first because there were too many unknowns and they were watching out for YOUR safety…. Ask yourself, if this has been proven safe, then why couldn’t Oxitec get your City Commissioners comfortable to experiment on YOU in Key West?” So on an overcast day, when we decided it would be a good time to drive down to Key West and stroll Duval Street to take in the sights, sounds and aromas of the famously laid-back pastel town, I asked a shopkeeper what he thought about the whole thing. He had no idea what I was talking about. (I guess that’s a sign of competent city commissioners.) However, on the drive back, I looked in the direction where the maps told me I could find Key Haven and noticed that the skies there seemed to be a lot more gray.
BACK IN paradise, some 60 km. northeast of ground-zero, with the sun out again and the palms swaying gently above our almost-private white-sand beach, the matter of the mutant mosquitoes bothered me some. You know – GMOs, corporate secrecy, government collusion, things like that.
But soon, I’d be packing up and going home – to those steak knives, to our do-nothing prime minister, to the do-nothing Palestinian Authority president, to IDF soldiers taking the law into their own hands, to Hamas’s tunnels, to Bezalel Smotrich, to Bouji Herzog, to Iran’s brazen missile program (and the Obama administration’s apparent disinterest), to Israeli drivers….
It seems you can’t get away from it, no matter where you go. Yet all things being relative, I have to admit that I already miss the Florida Keys.