Thanks to Florida Gulf Coast University, Aedes aegypti and Aedes albopictus are in for a fight.
They are the two species of mosquitoes that transmit the infamous Zika virus that, because it can cause serious birth defects, has frightened women of child-bearing age specifically — and everyone generally — since its presence in the U.S. was confirmed by cases discovered in sections of Miami-Dade County.
FGCU finds itself smack in the middle of this biting health battle on two fronts.
Behind the scenes, university virologists and researchers Sharon Isern and Scott Michael have developed a treatment for dengue virus that’s expected to reach human clinical trials next year and also could be effective against Zika. And on the Miami-Dade battlefront, FGCU graduate Darrel Bagiotti (’14 Environmental Studies) is leading a team of about 140 employees of Clarke, an Illinois-based global producer of environmental products and services, in that company’s ground fight against Zika-spreading mosquitoes.
So while the Isern-Michael husband-and-wife research team works in an FGCU lab to kill the virus once its contracted, Bagiotti — operations manager of Clarke’s satellite office set up at Miami-Dade Mosquito Control headquarters in Doral — trains, equips, dispatches and monitors his crews in the field daily as they try to nip Zika in the bug, so to speak.
Last May, Bagiotti was moved to Miami-Dade from the company’s Palm Beach County office, where he was a field supervisor, to lead the Zika Emergency Response Team. What started as a one-crew, two-person presence quickly grew by the day, and by Aug. 1, the effort had expanded to six crews. It kept growing from there as the Zika scare spread.
“It got a little crazy,” said Bagiotti, who grew up in nearby Hollywood, Fla., and minored in biology, climate change and interdisciplinary studies at FGCU to go with his bachelor’s degree in environmental studies. “I was interviewing up to 40 job candidates a day building the team before the company’s head human-resources person came down and took over. What’s great is that we have been able to hire locally, and these people come in with a passion to protect and take care of their neighbors and loved ones.”
Bagiotti coordinates OSHA training for the new employees and puts crews through field training — and not just on how to read the labels on the larvicides and adulticides, then apply the products. “We address door manners — how I want our crews to approach people in their homes, how to maintain a professional appearance, how to properly treat and care for the residents of Miami-Dade,” he said.
While traditional methods of mosquito control such as aerial spraying often appear rather daunting, Bagiotti is proud to represent a company he says produced the first naturally developed, reduced-risk product, trademarked as Natular. It’s a larvicide with four formulations so environmentally safe that it’s even approved for use in and around organic food crops without putting the “organic” status at risk.
Miami-Dade Mosquito Control continues to do aerial bombing as part of the Zika war, while Bagiotti and his team on the ground are busy going door to door in pursuit of the two strains of targeted mosquitoes that he says, curiously, are “most active during daytime hours.” They do inspections armed with handheld sprayers and tip over containers where water collects. “These mosquitoes are container breeders; they can reproduce in a bottle cap,” Bagiotti said.
Clarke’s staff takes other measures that the FGCU alum says have been “tailored to the culture of the Miami-Dade people, the environment, the habitats, the building structures.” This includes a system the company developed to get its larvicide into tight, hard-to-reach locations. “They can’t get the airplanes around the taller buildings, so we mounted spray turbines (essentially huge fans) to get our larvicide into places the aerial applications can’t get to,” Bagiotti said. “We’re getting great results based on our field testing.”
In short, they are winning the war, perhaps best illustrated by Gov. Rick Scott’s declaration last month that the Wynwood section of Miami — where Zika was first discovered on the east coast — is virus-free. And what’s most rewarding to the field general orchestrating the victory is that he’s able to turn the tide without comprising his dedication to the environment and sustainability that was ingrained in him at FGCU.
Bagiotti says Clarke is so dedicated to minimizing its footprint that he uses sensors to detect when his vehicles in the field are idling for five minutes, at which time the field operators are instructed to turn them off to reduce carbon emissions. The company even has workers doing field rounds by bicycle, when possible.
“FGCU embodies and embraces stewardship, and I like to think what Clarke is doing as a pioneer and innovator in the industry will change the way we look at mosquito control for years to come,” Bagiotti said. “What we developed here in Miami, doing our job with special care for the people and the planet, that attitude extends all the way up to the CEO. We are just continuing to do great work.”