More than 570 people have signed an online petition calling for the Cayman Islands government to suspend plans to release millions of genetically modified mosquitoes in the district of West Bay.
The mosquito release is part of a planned multi-phase rollout of a control solution developed by U.K. biotech company Oxitec, which involves releasing “friendly” Aedes aegypti male mosquitoes to help fight the mosquito that transmits diseases such as dengue, chikungunya and Zika. The Mosquito Research and Control Unit and Oxitec plan to begin releasing the mosquitoes this month in West Bay.
The petition, put forward by Caymanians United to Suspend GM Mosquitoes, calls for at least a six-month suspension of the planned release, citing concerns about the transparency of the project and “contradictory information regarding the effects and capabilities” of the genetically modified mosquitoes.
“We, the concerned residents of the Cayman Islands, condemn the decision of the Cayman Islands Government to support the launch and release of the Genetically Modified Mosquitoes project with Oxitec, in collaboration with the MRCU … without first conducting a public consultation with the Caymanian people and the residents of the Cayman Islands,” the petition states.
Dwene Ebanks, who spearheads the opposition movement, said he and others opposed to the project are “uncomfortable” about what they say they have “uncovered” during their own research and believe there is information about the mosquitoes that is not being shared. One concern is that a small number of GM female mosquitoes will be released with the GM male mosquitoes.
Female Aedis aegypti can carry viruses like Zika, chikungunya, and dengue fever.
“They said that they were releasing only males, however, when pressed they admitted there would be females released as well,” said Katina Masura Anglin, writing to the Compass on behalf of the Caymanians United group. “If they are releasing the males to mate with the female [Aedis aegypti], why do they need to release female [genetically modified mosquitoes] as well?”
According to Oxitec Cayman Ltd. project manager Renaud Lacroix, a few females “slip through” during the sorting process that is done with a wired sieve, and those that are accidentally released “do not increase the risk” of virus transmission in the release area.
The females that are released are not disease-ridden because they have been bred in the laboratory, Mr. Lacriox said, and they are “unlikely to survive long enough for the virus to develop in them. They have adapted to the laboratory conditions where food and water are freely available and predators absent, so once they are in the environment they do not survive as well as the wild females,” he said, adding that once the mosquito bites someone infected by dengue, Zika, or chikungunya, it takes five to 10 days before they can transmit it to someone else.
The female mosquitoes, like the males, also carry a “self-limiting gene” so their offspring die before reaching adulthood, Mr. Lacriox said.
The Caymanians United group is also concerned by reports that the outbreak of Zika and cases of microcephaly in babies in Brazil were connected to Oxitec’s release of GM mosquitoes there. Several media outlets have circulated this claim which began on a Reddit thread in January, but it has since been refuted by several fact-checkers.
“Regarding the rumors, official and independent bodies have denied them so I will not add any comment,” Mr. Lacriox said, noting that the U.S. Centers for Disease Control has stated that microcephaly is caused by Zika, not by Oxitec mosquitoes.
The Caymanians United group is also concerned about the number of mosquitoes that will be released (22 million in the initial rollout) and what they view as the experimental nature of the project.