(CNS): Government has cancelled a planned national roll-out of the controversial genetically modified mosquito project by the UK-based firm Oxitec. Nancy Barnard, the acting director of the Mosquito Research and Control Unit, told CNS that the decision not to expand the experimental method for suppressing the Aedes aegypti was due to budget cuts. However, it appears that government was questioning the success of the entire project, with divisions between the former head of the MRCU and his senior staff over the impact of releasing the bio-engineered insect.
According to a chain of correspondence between the MRCU, the ministry and Oxitec executives, not all of those involved in the project believed it was working or that the West Bay pilot was as successful as Oxitec had claimed.
Earlier this month CNS submitted questions to the MRCU about the situation regarding the current mosquito project. On Friday, Barnard responded and told us that there would not be a national roll-out, largely due to government-wide budgeting considerations.
“MRCU and Oxitec are now looking into an integrated programme using all methods available to fight Aedes aegypti in full synergy,” she said. “The 2018 programme will allow MRCU scientists time to assess a fully integrated vector management (IVM) approach with Oxitec in West Bay. MRCU is in the final stages of talks with Oxitec regarding the ‘Friendly Aedes aegypti Programme’ for 2018.”
But last week, as a result of an FOI request, the MRCU released a long chain of correspondence between the unit, government officials and Oxitec executives covering the life of the project. It is clear from the email chains that not everyone at MRCU or the ministry was convinced the GM mosquitoes were having a significant impact, and concerns were raised about the failure to reach the sustained suppression rates that had been expected.
Oxitec blamed the lower rates on the delays it experienced getting a further licence to import the eggs after the National Conservation Council requested an environmental assessment, but the MRCU appeared to believe that this setback was not the only reason for the lower than expected suppression rates.
It seemed that while the former MRCU director, Dr Bill Petrie, had recommended the national roll-out, other scientists at the department had concerns about how successful the West Bay pilot had been. Following Petrie’s departure from the unit last summer and after mixed messages from government to their private sector partners, the planned island-wide roll-out was shelved by the ministry and the MRCU.
By the end of September last year, it was clear that no money was going to be allocated in the two-year 2018/19 budget for the island-wide roll-out of the genetically modified mosquitoes. Oxitec then began accusing government officials of having a lack of “scientific rationale” behind the decision-making after Dr Petrie resigned, as well as a lack of consistency and objectivity.
The correspondence suggests that the parties came to some form of draft agreement to continue the project in West Bay for this year only and to use other undefined mosquito-fighting techniques.
It is not clear if the MRCU will be turning to other bio-engineering techniques now available, as the correspondence ends with the departure of Oxitec’s Caribbean consultant, Richard Adey, who was dealing with the Cayman contract but became a casualty of cost-cutting measures by Intrexon, Oxitec’s parent company.