(CNS): Despite recent revelations that the pilot project using genetically modified male mosquitoes to reduce the Aedes aegypti population fell far short of expectations, the government has signed a new deal with biotechnology company, Oxitec, to continue releasing them. The contract is costing the public purse around CI$588,000 and appears to be not much more than a repeat of the first project. In a government release officials said the release of the GM mosquitoes will take place alongside other management techniques to measure the effectiveness and efficiency of the technique.
The new programme will occur in the southwestern area of West Bay, officials said, where the bio-bugs were previously released alongside a second comparator area in southeast West Bay. It will also expand releases of those same mosquitoes into a neighbouring but geographically distinct area to the northwest of the district.
Mosquito Research and Control Unit Director James McNelly said the programme is set to begin immediately with public outreach. He said that in two areas (northwest and southwest) the programme will combine the release of varying levels of Oxitec mosquitoes with MRCU’s traditional ground control measures of inspecting and spraying sources of standing water in which Aedes aegypti might breed.
Inspections will take place at all business and residential premises. The comparator area in the southeast will also benefit from MRCU’s traditional mosquito surveillance and control measures, but the GM mosquitoes will not be released there.
“Within the areas under evaluation we will go door to door to inspect every residence,” McNelly said. “This is a very labour intensive approach and as such we are appealing to interested members of the community to reach out to us to find out how they can help with this process. Fogging operations will continue in all areas as required from both our trucks and planes.”
The evaluation period is expected to run until the end of the year and will be completed before the permit to release the bio-engineered insects expires.
The news that government is spending close to $600,000 on another phase using GM bugs comes after revelations that the scientists at the MRCU were arguing among themselves about the efficacy of the project and that the level of success was nowhere near the claims made by Oxitec, which was formerly UK-based but was recently bought out by a US conglomerate.
Despite the ongoing concerns about potential unintended and unknown consequences of releasing the GM mosquitoes and the much greater than expected release of females that can still bite, the government appears more than willing to continue trying the technique.
Health Minister Dwayne Seymour commented on this issue, despite remaining silent on a catalog of problems relating to his ministry, including challenges at the dump, garbage collection, the so far unexplained disappearance of the dump’s director, as well as suspensions and irregularities at the hospital.
Seymour said the data derived from the new programme would assist in the determination of the most effective, efficient and sustainable tools as MRCU develops its approach to eradicating the mosquito that transmits these diseases.
“If this further evaluation proves the method to be effective, the Cayman Islands will be making significant progress in the battle against this disease vector and may serve as a model for other countries in our region that are struggling to address this public health threat,” the minister said. However, he did not mention the existing data, which appears to show that the previous pilot had largely failed to demonstrate that the technique works.
Health Ministry Chief Officer Jennifer Ahearn warned that Cayman could be facing a dengue outbreak over the coming months.
“The Cayman Islands is far from immune to viral illnesses that affect other countries and has already experienced a brief outbreak of Zika in late 2016 and early 2017,” she said. “With the region preparing for a possible outbreak of dengue type 4 this summer, we need to arm ourselves with every weapon at our disposal, including the best scientific information.”
MRCU Assistant Director Research and Development Alan Wheeler, who, according to the documents released by the MRCU, was one of the scientists who had previously questioned the success and use of the GM mosquitoes, said the new project would evaluate the GM insects alongside other control techniques.
“This will allow us to thoroughly evaluate the technique before implementing plans to expand it to other areas of the island,” he said.