(CNS): Claims that the release of genetically modified sterile male mosquitoes in the Cayman Islands in a pilot programme that began this week could eliminate the Aedes aegypti, the species that transmits several diseases, have been refuted by a non-governmental organisation that monitors the use of GM technology. GeneWatch UK said that previous experiments by Oxitec, the company that is behind the process, showed how ineffective the technology was. “There is no realistic expectation that mass releases of GM mosquitoes will reduce the risk of dengue or Zika and there is significant potential for things to go wrong,” warned Dr Helen Wallace, the director of the UK-based activist group.
“The risks have still not been properly assessed, including impacts on other mosquito species, which could move into the area in response to the releases. The risks of swallowing GM mosquitoes, or being bitten by released females, have still not been fully tested. And GM mosquitoes are likely to spread away from the release site when the genetic killing mechanism fails,” she added.
Oxitec has said it is only releasing genetically engineered male insects that don’t bite and that in time the species could be eliminated, as it has been in the past. Previous eradications of the mosquito species, which is not indigenous to the Cayman Islands, were achieved using harmful chemicals.
The project, for which there has so far been no charge to the Cayman Islands, was described by Oxitec as a partnership; the bio-tech company is supplying the mosquitos and staff to do the release while the Mosquito Research and Control Unit (MRCU) is supporting the programme with local resources. However, in time Oxitec hopes to profit from their bio-engineered insects and it is not clear if the Cayman government will be required to pay for future releases.
Cayman and Brazil are the first countries where the mosquitos are being released as part of a planned eradication programme, moving on from various tests, including one first conducted here in East End some five years ago.
While the Oxitec scientists, supported by the local MRCU and government, claim this is a safe, environmentally friendly way to eliminate the Aedes aegypti without harming other species, there are still concerns about the very long-term impact and the still relatively limited knowledge of the use of GM technology on the insect world.
Following government’s announcement about the project on Friday, the MRCU will be conducting an awareness campaign over the next few weeks, which started this weekend in West Bay, where the first GM mosquitoes have been released.