The planned release of millions of genetically modified mosquitoes in West Bay, scheduled to begin Thursday morning, has been halted after a judge granted a stay late Wednesday.
The stay issued by Justice Ingrid Mangatal is pending a judicial review hearing scheduled for 9:30 a.m. Tuesday in open court.
Applications for the stay and judicial review were filed by HSM attorneys on behalf of Dwene Ebanks, who spearheads a movement called Caymanians United Against GM Mosquitoes.
Mr. Ebanks also started an online petition to suspend the GM mosquito release. The petition has 673 signatures.
The Mosquito Research and Control Unit, in collaboration with biotechnology company Oxitec, had planned to release millions of male GM Aedes aegypti mosquitoes as a preventive measure to control the mosquito species responsible for the transmission of viruses such as Zika, dengue and chikungunya.
The MRCU and Oxitec originally planned to begin the rollout of their “friendly Aedes aegypti project” in June, but delays in acquiring permits moved the release date to Thursday. Now, the MRCU and Oxitec do not know when – or if – the release will occur.
“I think it’s very regrettable that the project has been stayed,” MRCU Director Bill Petrie said. “We are hopeful that it will be a short delay and that we can get on with the project as soon as possible, especially given that we now have Zika in Cayman.” Mr. Petrie said a “lengthy delay would be detrimental to the program as a whole.”
Mosquitoes to be destroyed
The “batch” of approximately 75,000 mosquitoes that was to be released Thursday will have to be destroyed, Mr. Petrie said.
To kill the mosquitoes, lab workers put them in a freezer, where they remain for 12 hours and then are discarded.
Mr. Petrie said the wasted batches would be a loss for the entire program because permits allow MRCU and Oxitec to import and use only a particular quantity, which they cannot exceed.
Oxitec project manager Renaud Lacroix said the company is working to calculate the financial loss caused by the delay, and he is concerned about the negative effect the stay might have on the project’s ability to reduce the population of Aedes aegypti mosquitoes.
“We’re now quite advanced in the rainy season and in the mosquito season, so we only have a few months left in the rainy season where we could see an obvious effect in the reduction of mosquitoes in the treatment area,” Mr. Lacroix said.
He said there would still be some effect if the program starts later in the season, it just would not be as “striking.”
“It is possible that if the stay is too extended, we won’t be able to see a reduction during the rainy season, which is when you need to protect people from the bites of Aedes aegypti and the transmission of dengue, Zika and chikungunya,” Mr. Lacroix said.
Mr. Petrie explained that as the rainy season goes on, the threat from Zika increases, “ … so that’s the concern from the public health perspective.”
In a press statement issued Thursday, Acting Medical Officer of Health Dr. Samuel Williams-Rodriguez said the “deferral in launching the Oxitec project for the Cayman Islands is met upon with concern in relation to our obligation to prioritize means to protect the health, safety and well-being of all residents and visitors alike.
“I remain confident in the system of justice and it is my hope that both legally and scientifically all agencies will be permitted to move forward in implementing this worthwhile project,” Dr. Williams-Rodriguez said.
Mr. Lacroix saidthis is not the first time legal action has been brought against Oxitec, as there had been an earlier legal challenge to try to stop an Oxitec project last year in Brazil. He said he hopes to “have a positive result out of this legal action, as happened … in Brazil.”
“We believe our technology is safe,” he added, “and it has been deemed safe in every country we’ve applied for it. There have been more than 150 million males released so far worldwide, and there has been no adverse event detected by any of the countries we’ve worked with.”
He said he does not believe the people who brought the matter to court represent the whole population of Grand Cayman.
“From our own activities when we’ve met the public, we’ve received quite a lot of support and positive response to the project,” he said.