(CNS): The National Conservation Council has found that the proposed release of millions of genetically engineered mosquitoes in West Bay does not pose a threat to the bio-diversity of Cayman and has approved the application by the Mosquito Research and Control Unit to undertake a population control project with Oxitec. NCC Chair Christine Rose-Smyth said that as the Aedes aegypti is an invasive species which is largely associated with urban populations the short trial should not allow the modified insects to establish themselves in the habitat.
Speaking at the NCC’s monthly meeting Wednesday, she explained that the National Conservation Law requires the council to approve or deny applications for any GM releases and said that there appeared to be little chance of the modified mosquitoes spreading.
Smyth added that it was unlikely that any population reduction would impact other species as this mosquito is not an exclusive food source for any local animals.
Department of Environment Director Gina Petrie-Ebanks also gave her support, as she said that this particular method of controlling the numbers of the invasive and pervasive Aedes ageypti, which spread numerous diseases, did not involve pesticides, something that has been of greater concern to the DoE.
The NCC’s approval for Oxitec in partnership with the MRCU to release the sterile genetically modified male mosquitoes, known as the OX513A, is limited to the West Bay site only and any expansion of the project area, which officials have said is the intention of this programme, will need further permits.
The MRCU will be bringing in over a kilo and a half of eggs over 12 months and a maximum of 22 million GM insects, which will be bred at the facility in George Town and released during the project.
The project has received mixed reaction as there are some concerns that the long-term impact of releasing genetically modified species is still not fully understood. While Oxitec has conducted numerous research projects, including here in Cayman, and achieved considerable success in reducing the disease-spreading mosquito, the main bone of contention appears to be the possibility of surviving females.
Although the UK-based bio-technology firm aims to release only the male GM insects in every project, a small percentage are female as it is not possible for researchers to guarantee they are all destroyed during the breeding process.This means that females, which can bite, could go also go on to mate with non-GM males. There are also some worries that scientists cannot yet say with certainty that ingesting the modified insects is not harmful in the long term to either humans or other species.
By and large however, the various pilot projects have received official approval and scientists are confident that this technology will eventually all but eradicate the mosquito, which is a dangerous vector for numerous, sometimes fatal, diseases, including chikungunya, dengue and yellow fever, as well as the Zika virus.
The Aedes aegypti is an African species that has spread around the world, having invaded most tropical and subtropical regions. It is hard to control as it lives in urban environments very close to humans, limiting the use of pesticides.