(CNS): The bio-technology firm which is beginning a mosquito population reduction programme in West Bay next month has revealed that as many as 200,000 genetically engineered insects will be released each week over the life of the project. Over the next few months, as many as 4 million, mostly male, Oxitec GM Aedes aegypti mosquitoes will be released into a designated release area in the heart of the district to breed with regular females, whose offspring will carry the modified gene and die.
Hosting a public meeting in West Bay on Tuesday evening, Dr Bill Petrie, the director of the Mosquito Research and Control Unit (MRCU) said trying to control the invasive and dangerous, disease-spreading species of mosquito was becoming increasingly challenging but the Oxitec GM bug could be the final solution for the pest.
More than two dozen members of the West Bay community joined MRCU officials and executives from the UK-based firm Oxitec and its new Cayman-based subsidiary, as well as ministry staff and two of the district’s MLAs at a meeting where the project was explained and questions and concerns discussed.
Dr Petrie said that Aedes aegypti was a “public health menace that is really difficult to control”. Noting that it was becoming increasingly resistant to the various pesticides the MRCU had at its disposal, he explained that the unit had been looking for a viable solution for years and they were hopeful that the GM mosquitoes could help to massively reduce the population, if not eradicate it.
Attendees heard that Oxitec has now conducted several trials around the world, including in Cayman some six years ago, and the firm claims there is no health risks to anyone or the environment and that all traces of the bio-engineered insects disappeared in a matter of weeks after all of the trials and studies it has undertaken.
Derek Nimmo, Product Development Manager at Oxitec, who is in Cayman for the start of the release, outlined the research and technology, the details of the release and the results of previous studies and trials.
He claimed that the firm’s bio-engineered mosquitoes are now a proven bio-technology, that they are not harmful to humans and there is no threat to the environment. Despite concerns about the release of a genetically modified insect into natural habitats, the firm insists the bugs are a safe and effective way of eradicating a dangerous insect with strong environmental credentials because no pesticides are used.
Nimmo said that in a matter of weeks after a release ends there is no trace of the GM bugs and there have been no adverse consequences to any other species, habitats or humans. He said the release, which begins in June, will see over 99% of male engineered mosquitoes released but the less than one percent of females will not cause any adverse consequences even if they bite humans.
He said that if they breed with the wild male mosquito, their offspring also die shortly after birth. The number of bugs released will depend on the level of wild females in the release area but it would be between 100,000 and 200,000 each week for several weeks.
Then, after two to three months the population of the Aedes aegypti mosquitoes is expected to fall dramatically.
Nimmo revealed that the firm has been cleared in Brazil to commercialize the technology. This means that after many years of research and development, the firm is close to realising its goal of making a profit from the engineered insects.
Here in Cayman there have been mixed messages about how much the public purse is paying for this stage of the project. It is a collaboration between MRCU and Oxitec where resources are being shared, but it is not clear if any money has changed hands. Dr Petrie explained that if it is a success, the MRCU will buy the GM eggs from Oxitec in the same way it currently buys pesticides, but in the long run it would be much cheaper.