(CNS): A batch of genetically engineered mosquitoes reared specifically for release yesterday have been destroyed. A last minute application to the court by a group of local activists managed to put a temporary stop on the planned release of the GM Aedes aegypti bio-engineered by the UK-based company, Oxitec, in partnership with the Mosquito Research and Control Unit. A legal hearing has been fixed for next Tuesday but Oxitec’s Dr Renaud Lacroix said the insects that had been hatched for the first release in West Bay would begin to die. Even if the stay is lifted next week, most of them would already be dead so the batch was no longer viable, he explained.
While few people are grieving the loss of tens of thousands of insects, MRCU Director Dr Bill Petrie told CNS that their destruction raises concern for the project, which was supposed to see the start of the release in West Bay Thursday. He said the MRCU had been given a licence to undertake this release and import a specific number of the GM mosquito eggs. The stay means the project is now 75,000 eggs down before even one bug has been released.
“Our permits allow us to import and release a particular amount and this batch has been lost from the whole programme,” he said. “If it’s a short delay then it is not too much of a problem … but a lengthy delay could be quite damaging for the project and public health.”
He explained that the cost of the batch that has been wasted will be borne by Oxitec rather than the MRCU because at present the pilot project is a collaboration, where Oxitec are supplying the eggs and technology and the MRCU the equipment and other support resources.
Dr Petrie said he was completely convinced that the release would be 100% safe and that this could be the solution to the mounting problem of Aedes aegypti, which is an invasive species of mosquito.
In the past, the MRCU had managed to keep the dangerous bugs at bay as the unit focused on the ports of entry and used larvasides when it appeared in containers, but from 2000 onwards, the numbers began to grow.
However, the post Hurricane Ivan situation in 2004 created the perfect environment for one of the world’s most worrying public health problems to flourish and the Aedes aegypti became a permanent fixture.
“We recorded a 13 fold increase in the rise Aedes aegypti after Ivan because of the debris and rainfall,” Dr Petrie said. “It’s been a challenge since then.”
Given that the mosquitoes lives so close to humans and it transmits a long list of challenging viruses and disease including chikungunya, yellow fever and zika, so finding a way to decrease the insect has long been a post-Ivan priority for the MRCU.
The MRCU’s aerial lavarside initiative, with the help of local bats and other creatures who dine on the more succulent indigenous mosquitoes, have proved successful at controlling the local swamp bugs that do not transmit disease, but spraying programmes are far less effective against the Aedes aegypti.
Dr Petrie said the unit had been looking at alternative technologies and the Oxitec project, the research for which began at Oxford University, was one that they paid close attention to. He said there was never any hard sell to Cayman and the MRCU had reached out to them after following the work they were doing.
“We learned about the technology from conferences,” he explained. “Once we looked into it, we found the science was sound. The research aspects and practicalities of what could be done were encouraging. Our view… and the scientific consensus is that it is entirely safe and we would not embark on it if it wasn’t,” Petrie said, noting that there are no pesticides involved and he was “absolutely” convinced it was 100% safe.
But Not everyone is convinced and there is considerable suspicion about Oxitec and their claims about the bio-engineered mosquitoes. This has resulted in the application to the courts to overturn the licence granted to the MRCU by the National Conservation Council.
Local activists have pointed to a lack of independent research to support Oxitec’s claims and the failure of the authorities here to engage in public consultation before signing up to the project. The group filed an application for judicial review this week and the Grand Court issued a stay until Tuesday, when the case will be aired before a judge, who will decide if the licence was issued in accordance with the law. The courts won’t decide on the science but whether or not the legal process and due consideration was given by government and the NCC before the licence was granted.
The release that was scheduled to begin this week would have seen the first batch of GM sterile mosquitoes released around the North West Point area of West Bay.
The vast majority of mosquitoes released are males, which don’t bite, but there is a small percentage of biting females in every batch. These males would then mate with the wild females, who in turn produce offspring that don’t survive, thereby dramatically reducing the population. Given that the life cycle of a mosquito is only a matter of weeks, the scientists hope that a targeted sustained release over a few months will come close to eradicating the invasive bug.
Petrie said the unit was hoping this delay would be short to enable the scientists and researchers to start the release and what could prove to be the beginning of the end for the Aedes aegypti in Cayman.