Millions of GM mosquitoes to be released

Permit approved by conservation council

A genetically modified adult mosquito emerges from its pupa. – PHOTO: OXITEC

The National Conservation Council has granted permit approval for the release of up to 22 million genetically modified mosquitoes in Grand Cayman over the next nine months.

The council approved the import of the eggs and the release of the mosquitoes ahead of a trial project to fight the disease-spreading Aedes aegypti mosquito in West Bay.

U.K. biotech company Oxitec will hatch and process the eggs at a laboratory in a refurbished shipping container on the compound of Cayman’s Mosquito Research and Control Unit on Red Gate Road.

Up to 600,000 male mosquitoes, modified so their offspring die before reaching adulthood, will be produced for release every week throughout the trial period, starting mid-June. It is hoped that the genetically modified strain, through weight of numbers, will out-compete the resident males for mates and crash the population.

The council approved the permit application at its meeting Wednesday, saying there is likely to be no negative impact on Cayman’s natural environment.

In an interview with the Cayman Compass on Thursday, William Petrie of the Mosquito Control and Research Unit sought to allay public fears, insisting his unit, the Conservation Council and the Department of Agriculture have done their due diligence.

“There is a tremendous amount of work that we have looked at. We are certainly not being used as guinea pigs,” he said.

He said the process was endorsed by the World Health Organization, which is actively encouraging countries in the Caribbean and Latin America to use new methods to fight Aedes aegypti, the species of mosquito which carries diseases like dengue fever and Zika, for which there is currently no cure.

Oxitec has also been asked to provide risk assessments and other data to governments in Brazil and Malaysia over the past few years and is opening production factories in Brazil, the epicenter of the Zika outbreak.

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration is still going through an assessment of the technology ahead of a release of genetically modified mosquitoes in the Florida Keys.

The Food and Drug Administration has produced an initial finding of “no significant impact” and is now soliciting public feedback.

“Oxitec has provided a wealth of information and we don’t need to duplicate all that,” said Mr. Petrie.

He said the process could prove pivotal in the global fight against mosquito-borne diseases like dengue, chikungunya and Zika.

“No one else has a solution that can deal with those diseases,” he added.
He said he understood public fears around new technology, particularly genetically modified organisms, but said those fears were unfounded.

“If you look at all different breeds of dogs and cats, they are genetically modified. It is just that is done through husbandry rather than in a lab,” he said.

Though it appears complex, he said, the science is well understood. Put simply, it is not possible for a mosquito to transfer its DNA to humans.

“There is no biological mechanism if the mosquito bites you, or even if you were to eat a handful of them, for its DNA to transfer into your DNA. It’s the same as if you eat beef or broccoli. You ingest the DNA, it doesn’t find its way into your DNA.”

The intention is to release only male mosquitoes, which do not bite, though it is accepted that a small number of females may be introduced.

At its meeting Wednesday, the National Conservation Council unanimously approved the permit for the project.

Council Chairwoman Christine Rose-Smyth said Aedes aegypti is an invasive species in the Cayman Islands and eradicating them would not have an impact on the overall ecosystem.

She said it is largely an urban mosquito, and research suggests there would be little knock-on impact on predators like birds or bats if it were eradicated.

Gina Ebanks-Petrie, director of the Department of Environment, said the process is safer environmentally than more widely used techniques.

“The only alternative for suppression of mosquito populations are pesticides that carry a far greater risk to non-target organisms,” she said.

Renaud Lacroix, project manager for Oxitec Cayman Ltd., welcomed the council’s decision, which extends an earlier permit permission from the Department of Environment. The advent of the National Conservation Law moved the regulatory approval responsibility to the council.

“The technology is environmentally safe,” he said. “It has been reviewed by regulatory bodies around the world with no risk found to the natural environment or to the human population.”

Despite some public fears of the unknown, he said the project is broadly welcomed.

“The responses have been overwhelmingly positive. Most people see the risk of Zika and dengue and they want to be protected.”

In a statement earlier this year, the World Health Organization supported the use of genetically modified mosquitoes to fight disease, saying it was encouraging affected countries “to boost the use of both old and new approaches to mosquito control as the most immediate line of defense.”

The Mosquito Research and Control Unit and biotech company Oxitec will host a public meeting at the Sir John A Cumber Primary School at 7 p.m., Tuesday, to explain details and answer questions on the project.

Public meeting

The Mosquito Research and Control Unit and biotech company Oxitec will host a public meeting at the Sir John A Cumber Primary School at 7 p.m., Tuesday, to explain details and answer questions on the project.

It is hoped that the genetically modified strain, through weight of numbers, will out-compete the resident males for mates and crash the population.

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1 COMMENT

  1. Ok I understand, so this Genetically modified mosquito will be bringing in his husbands, so he cannot multiply and have babies to bite the hell out of us. Probably makes sense. That should at least wipe out those little pond rascals.

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