Plans to expand the release of genetically modified mosquitoes across Grand Cayman have been submitted to the National Conservation Council.

The Mosquito Research and Control Unit has applied for a new import permit and outlined a proposal for a two-year program to fight the disease-spreading Aedes aegypti mosquito islandwide.

The proposal contemplates the construction of new mobile labs, converted from shipping containers, for hatching the larvae. It also suggests the genetically modified mosquitoes could be deployed on Cayman Brac.

Reports submitted to the council, along with the permit application, indicate the first phase of the project, in West Bay, has been a success and that the MRCU and its partner, British biotech firm Oxitec, are planning a national rollout. Bill Petrie, director of the unit, told the Cayman Compass that the aim is to begin the next phase of the release in February next year, pending government approval.

However, the permit request could face an independent risk analysis – similar to the environmental impact assessment process – under new guidelines drafted by the National Conservation Council.

Guidance notes, approved by the council at its meeting last week, indicate that all applications to import invasive or genetically modified species should go through a preliminary screening assessment. Lower risk imports will be dealt with internally by the Department of Environment, but more complex, higher risk applications will be reviewed by independent consultants.

The new process was developed following a recommendation from Justice Ingrid Mangatal after a court challenge to the release of the GM mosquitoes in May of last year.

Fred Burton, head of the Department of Environment’s terrestrial resources unit, said the new MRCU and Oxitec application would be the first application to go through the new process. He said the DoE and the council would have to determine whether there was enough information available already to deal with the request or if it should be subject to a broader independent analysis, which could involve public consultation.

Mr. Petrie said the MRCU had submitted the application early in the hope of beginning the national rollout early next year.

The application submitted to the council is for the import of up to 2 kilograms of eggs per month of the genetically engineered strain of the OX513A Aedes aegypti mosquito.

The permit application states, “As a continuation to the OX513A Aedes aegypti control program under way in West Bay under existing permission from the Department of Environment, the programmatic use of OX 513 is proposed island wide on Grand Cayman and beyond in other areas of the Cayman Islands as emerging Aedes aegypti threats are identified by the MRCU.

“A staged expansion of the program across Grand Cayman including the expansion of the OX 513 Aedes aegypti production capacity is foreseen.”

It indicates that new insectaries, converted from shipping containers or in a retrofitted warehouse, will be needed to produce up to 10 million GM mosquitoes a week to support the program.

Documents submitted by the MRCU along with the application indicate that the effective elimination of the Aedes aegypti mosquito could be possible over a longer period of time.

It suggests the modified mosquitoes are used alongside other suppression techniques in an “integrated vector management” plan.

The application indicates GM mosquitoes could also be used on Cayman Brac.

“The identification of Aedes aegypti in Cayman Brac is illustrative of the need for flexibility in deploying the OX513A technology within the territory of the Cayman Islands as the MRCU undertake surveillance of Aedes aegypti populations and identify where the OX513A technology is best suited.”

Mr. Petrie said the application is essentially for permission to replicate the work done in West Bay all over the Cayman Islands.

“The technique is identical. This is just scaling it up. We are confident it is working and, yes, we wish to continue to expand the program.”

The National Conservation Council guidance notes for import of invasive or GM species, approved last week, put in place a new system for assessing such imports.

Species which are deemed to be alien and are viewed as potentially invasive or harmful will go through a risk assessment, carried out either by DOE staff or by independent consultants, depending on the complexity.

“Where the release of an alien species may pose risks to human health, infrastructure and/or economic activity, issues which are all outside the remit of the National Conservation Law, the Department, or the independent consultant if appointed, should seek views from appropriate external agencies on these matters and take those views into account in formulating the risk assessment report; and the Council will take these same views into account when making a decision.”

Support local journalism. Subscribe to the all-access pass for the Cayman Compass.

Subscribe now