No reasons given for early end to release but project "appears to have fallen short"
It appears likely that this GM mosquito project has failed – in line with our and other civil society groups' predictions.
MRCU to stop releasing GM mosquitoes
Cayman News Service, 12 Nov 2018
The Mosquito Research and Control Unit has admitted that it has stopped the release of Oxitec’s genetically modified male Aedes aegypti mosquitoes in Grand Cayman, claiming that it is moving into a monitoring phase just a few months after it entered a deal with the bio-engineering firm in May.
The admission came in a press release from Government Information Services that failed to detail the reasons for stopping the GM project, which government had originally promoted as a potential silver bullet for tackling the invasive but entrenched species, which can carry a host of unpleasant and dangerous diseases.
The project appears to have fallen short and officials confirmed that the release of insects has already stopped, which is earlier than originally intended.
Last week, Cayman Marl Road published an unverified and unsourced blog post indicating that Oxitec was leaving the Cayman Islands, shutting down its operations and laying off all its staff because the technology did not work and that there had been a significant increase in the mosquitoes in West Bay.
Cayman News Service contacted both the MRCU and Oxitec about the allegations, but despite brief denials by both regarding the accusations and an acknowledgement of the CNS enquiry and questions, it was not until Saturday that an official release was issued. That release indicated that the project was coming to end but suggested some staff would remain at the unit “interpreting and assessing the data” from the last five-month pilot.
The MRCU said the overall populations of all mosquitoes in the West Bay area “have remained unexpectedly low this season”, but did not say whether that related to the MRCU’s traditional eradication work or because of the Oxitec bio-bugs.
In a release that was very unclear about the conclusions of the project, MRCU Director James McNelly said the design was sound and the collaboration positive.
“As intended, this programme provided both Government and Oxitec with valuable information that we can use going forward,” Dr McNelly said. “The project has given us valuable insight into how Oxitec’s approach might be integrated with our conventional tools. It also allowed us to monitor the population dynamics of another container-inhabiting mosquito that is a secondary vector of the diseases transmitted by Aedes aegypti. This is the Asian Tiger mosquito also known as Aedes albopictus.”
The project cost government $588,000 and the MRCU said it was now considering a no-cost collaboration in 2019.
Oxitec CEO Grey Frandsen thanked the government for the opportunity to assess how the company’s technology might best be used alongside MRCU’s integrated control programme in the Cayman Islands environment.
“This project will help shape how we can build new interventions in the future,” he said. “We applaud MRCU’s willingness to pilot new, innovative tools that can play a role in combating this disease-spreading mosquito. It is efforts like this that will help to eliminate this dangerous public health threat, and we look forward to future collaborations.”
Nevertheless, it remains unclear how effective the project, which involved the release of millions of genetically modified insects into the environment, really was and whether the reason to curtail the programme related to a cost or efficacy issue.
For some time now, the MRCU has been battling with the increasing resistance of the Aedes aegypti to conventional larvicides and so began looking at experimental alternatives. The original partnerships with Oxitec began more than eight years ago in 2010, when the company conducted an experimental release in East End. This caused considerable controversy because, although it was not done secretly, government failed to publicise the pilot widely and attempted to play down the experimental nature.
The firm’s return to Cayman in 2016 to launch a full-scale release in West Bay caused considerable public concern and legal action was taken by local people. Although this failed to stop the release, it did cause a delay.
While there has been evidence of some limited success in suppressing the mosquito, the project appeared to have fallen short and has also faced a number of glitches including issues regarding import licences and allegations that the number of bio-modified female insects, which can bite, was far higher than expected.
See full release from the health ministry here: