(CNS): A group of concerned Caymanians has launched an online petition calling for the suspension of the planned release in West Bay of genetically modified mosquitoes. The group believes Caymanians are being used as “lab rats” in the pilot project by the UK-based bio-technology firm Oxitec. The Mosquito Research and Control Unit (MRCU) has partnered with the company in a trial to eliminate the invasive Aedes aegypti using sterile GM male mosquitoes, which would eliminate the use of pesticides. However, not everyone is convinced the technique is safe.
The petitioners, who had collected over 480 signatures by Tuesday morning, want government to but the brakes on the project until further research and reviews of additional reports can be conducted. The petitioners say they have concerns that the general public was unaware of the negotiations between MRCU and Oxitec over the project until it was a done deal. The project could also be costing the public purse well over $1 million, according to figures released by the finance minister Monday in his Budget Speech.
Describing the announcement of what appeared to be a fait accompli as “an absolute disrespect and disregard for the wishes of the people”, the petition said there had been no time for debate.
Though the petitioners admit people have been infected by dengue fever and chikungunya, they pointed to Cayman’s low and sporadic rate of infectious disease transmitted by the Aedes aegypti and said it was not a major public health issue. They said the MRCU had done a tremendous job reducing and controlling the mosquito population in the country.
However, speaking at a public meeting in West Bay about the proposed release of the GM mosquitoes, MRCU Director Dr Bill Petrie explained the challenges the unit faces. The regular aerial operations are targeting Cayman’s native mosquitoes but reducing the human-loving, urban-living Aedes aegypti is considerably more difficult as the insect is becoming more resistant to pesticides used on it and its close proximity to people makes it even harder to tackle.
The National Conservation Council has also given the nod to the project, having issued a licence to the MRCU, as the board members said the science could prove a much more environmentally friendly option that pesticides.
Nevertheless, the petitioners fear that the GM mosquitoes may be even more dangerous than the pesticides. They claim that Oxitec has not been entirely truthful about its bio-technology and engineered insects. With differences between reports from the firm and those by other bodies, including the United States Food and Drug Administration, the petitioners are concerned over the numbers of sterile mosquitoes to be released.
“Causing the most concern within the public is Oxitec’s admission of the sheer number of mosquitoes intended for release, Oxitec’s contradictory information regarding the effects and capabilities of those mutant mosquitoes that are proposed to be released within direct proximity to our homes and, perhaps most distressing is the concern that there is not substantial evidence to validate Oxitec claims that genetically modified mosquitoes are harmless,” the petition states.