(CNS): Documents and correspondence released to GeneWatch, a UK-based NGO, under a freedom of information request appear to show that there is no evidence that the controversial release of genetically modified Aedes aegypti mosquitoes in West Bay by Oxitec in co-ordination with the Cayman Islands Mosquito Research and Control Unit (MRCU) made any impact on the targeted pests. GeneWatch pieced together annual reports as well as documents, in particular email correspondence, released under several FOI requests over several months that all seem to point to a failed project, which was released in a briefing report Monday.
Correspondence has shown that scientists at the MRCU have been asking questions for some time about the lack of evidence to support the claimed success and reduction in mosquitoes in the control area. The researchers also said in emails that the public needed to know the results of the research and analysis for the West Bay pilot project, which has caused considerable controversy from the outset.
The latest summary of the evidence from GeneWatch also shows that tens of thousands of female GM mosquitoes, which can bite, were also released, despite claims by Oxitec that only a tiny amount of female mosquitoes were ever accidentally included.
CNS contacted the MRCU and the health ministry, which has responsibility for it, and our enquiries were acknowledged. Official said that an announcement about the project will be forthcoming shortly as well as more details responding to the GeneWatch briefing.
The release of the GM mosquitoes was confined to West Bay and was designed to allow the scientists to measure the impact, but the original claims that after time the mosquitoes could be virtually wiped out, reducing populations of Aedes aegypti by over 90%, have proved to be an exaggeration. The GeneWatch report shows that MRCU scientists concluded that there was no significant reduction in the numbers in West Bay.
GeneWatch stated that the Oxford-based Oxitec, which is now owned by US company Intrexon, has made claims that are not supported by the published evidence from any of the countries where their GM mosquitoes have been released to date. That organisation also raises concerns that the inadvertent release of large numbers of biting female mosquitoes during the experiments may even increase the risk of diseases spreading between local people.
“If Oxitec’s claims are not supported by the evidence, this raises serious questions about due diligence and about whether members of the public, mosquito control units, health ministries and Intrexon’s investors are being misinformed about the efficacy and cost-effectiveness of this approach,” said Dr Helen Wallace, Director of GeneWatch UK. “Funding new technologies that do not work wastes money and puts lives at risk by diverting limited resources.”
While there have been significant concerns about the release, with West Bay residents challenging the process in the courts because of public health and environmental concerns, the actual cost to the public purse in Cayman has been relatively low. Officials told CNS that most of the support for the Oxitec work was supplied in kind by MRCU. Government has not made any payments so far directly to the firm but it has paid some staff expenses.
Earlier this year government announced that the planned national roll-out of the bio-engineered mosquitoes was being shelved, and that while the West Bay pilot programme would continue, the MRCU would be looking at other options. The claim was that budget restrictions had stopped the planned national release but the GeneWatch report suggests that issues over efficacy and the unfulfilled claims by Oxitec may be the real reason.