EDITORIAL – Keeping Cayman free of threatening ‘Zika mosquitoes’

Thousands of GM mosquitoes will have to be destroyed due to a stay of their release. - PHOTOS: KELSEY JUKAM

Given the choice between the risks associated with “natural” Aedes aegypti mosquitoes (which carry nasty viruses like Zika, chikungunya, dengue and yellow fever) and the potential risks of “genetically modified” Aedes aegypti mosquitoes (which are engineered to reduce the wild population) – we find ourselves more and more inclined to give the GM mosquitoes a chance.

The news that Miami has become home to the first documented instances of locally transmitted Zika in the U.S. throws fuel into the bonfire of media frenzy over the disease, which is linked to a severe and irreversible birth defect called microcephaly.

With the 14 confirmed cases in Miami, the U.S. joins a legion of other countries in the Western Hemisphere that have been infected with Zika, including Summer Olympics host Brazil. In fact, if you look at a U.S. Centers for Disease Control map of “All Countries & Territories with Active Zika Virus Transmission,” just about every place in the Americas has mosquitoes carrying Zika – except the Cayman Islands.

At least, so far.

In an editorial last week, we strongly disagreed with Department of Tourism Director Rosa Harris for uttering the words “Zika” and “Cayman” together in front of media microphones. However, we are certain that Ms. Harris and ourselves are in complete agreement that anything we can do to eradicate Aedes aegypti from Cayman will be a potential boon for tourism in Cayman.

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That brings us to Oxitec. If the British biotechnology firm is correct, their lab-grown mosquitoes could practically eliminate one of humanity’s deadliest scourges – the Aedes aegypti mosquito, which in February we dubbed as Cayman’s “public enemy number one.”

Now, for years we’ve been following Oxitec and its technology with a critical eye, and over time (and after reading multiple reports and studies) have become increasingly comfortable with their plans.

That being said, we’re not mosquito scientists.

Paul Reiter, however, is. After getting his feet wet in the marshes of Cayman, studying under Mosquito Research and Control Unit founder Marco Giglioli from 1969-1971, Professor Reiter went on to an illustrious career in mosquito and mosquito-borne disease research, taking him to the CDC and the celebrated Pasteur Institute in Paris.

In a letter to the editor we published last Thursday, Professor Reiter made a comprehensive case in favor of Oxitec’s scientific approach to battling Aedes aegypti. He said, of three innovative means out there of attacking the mosquito, that Oxitec’s product is “the most promising.”

He wrote, “That is why I am sad, even frustrated, that some people are spreading rumors and anxiety about its use. Here we have a new approach that is effective but does not use toxic insecticides and it is being rejected as ‘unsafe’ by various people.”

Here we’ll add a few words on those “various people”: While former (maybe future) West Bay political candidate Dwene Ebanks is the public face of the anti-Oxitec campaign in Cayman, our informed understanding is that the real money and power behind the effort originates from off-island, far from West Bay, Zika or any Aedes aegypti mosquito.

To put it another way, if the anti-Oxitec effort were a ventriloquism act, Mr. Ebanks may not be the one throwing his voice. At the least, he should reveal his sources of funding – either on or off the island.

But back to our original point. Nobody – not us, not Oxitec – knows with 100-percent certainty what the effects of releasing GM mosquitoes in Cayman will be. But so far, Oxitec’s results have been more than “promising” – they’ve been sterling.

What we can predict with certainty, however, are the results of not trying GM mosquitoes: more of the same, meaning tons of insecticide, cyclical resurgences in Aedes aegypti, and, possibly, a generation of Caymanians, especially children, subjected to mosquito-borne diseases.

Are we afraid of genetically modified mosquitoes? Not particularly.

It’s the unmodified ones that concern us.

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