Opponents of the use of genetically modified mosquitoes in the Cayman Islands say an application to use the technique island wide is “premature.”
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 across the Cayman Islands.
The U.S. based Institute for Responsible Technology, represented locally by HSM attorney Kerrie Cox, who also led a court action on behalf of local protesters, is asking government to consider other options.
It is pushing an alternative technique, using bacteria called Wolbachia, and is funding a visit to the island from researchers from Michigan State University, who developed the technique.
Mr. Cox said the researchers are willing to bring the program to Grand Cayman for free.
The attorney said he was surprised that an application had already been submitted by the MRCU to extend the GM mosquito program, a partnership with British biotech firm Oxitec, outside of West Bay.
He said, “The trial in West Bay has not yet been completed as far as we are aware, and the results need to be published and peer reviewed in scientific journals. The recommendation by the World Health Organization in March 2016, was for carefully planned pilot deployment [of genetically modified mosquitoes] accompanied by rigorous independent monitoring and evaluation. A general rollout across the whole of Grand Cayman is well beyond that recommendation and as such, the application is premature.”
The MRCU characterizes the West Bay program as phase one of an operational rollout, rather than a trial.
It says preliminary results show “without doubt” that the technique is working and it is seeking permission from the National Conservation Council for 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.
Mr. Cox said he was pleased that the council had established guidelines that could lead to an external analysis of the mosquito program.
He said his principal client, IRT, which appears to be a single-person organization run by Jeffrey Smith, a California based consumer activist who has campaigned against genetically modified foods, is urging the Cayman Islands government to consider an alternative method. They have highlighted the “Eliminate Dengue” program, a not-for-profit international collaboration, which infects mosquitoes with a naturally occurring bacteria, Wolbachia, reducing their ability to spread disease, as a viable, safer alternative to GM mosquitoes.
Mr. Cox said the approach was also backed by the WHO and was being led by nonprofit organizations rather than private companies.
He said he had met with researchers at Michigan State University, who developed the technique, and they were willing to supply the program in the Cayman Islands for free.
“Their goal is to simply provide a solution to mosquito-borne diseases and help countries develop a self-sustaining, long-term mosquito control program without on-going costs payable to private companies.”
He added, “As Wolbachia is already present in the environment, we suggest that this option presents a safer alternative to genetically modified organisms and its application as a vector control strategy is achieving results in excess of 95 percent in the reduction of mosquito populations,” said Mr. Cox.
“This technique has already been approved by regulators in the U.S., China, Singapore, Cuba, Mexico, Peru and Brazil.”
Professor Zhiyong Xi and David Dewitt of MSU are planning to visit Grand Cayman and give a presentation of the MSU program at the end of April, Mr. Cox said.
“We had hoped that Dr. Petrie would have been able meet them on their visit but he is unable to do so due to his attendance at a Health Conference. However, we will be inviting the DOE and members of the NCC to attend, so that they are fully aware of the Wolbachia alternative and its successful use in other countries. We hope that MRCU and the regulators have an open mind about considering an alternative to the GMM program and potential long-term costs savings.”
Mr. Petrie, the director of the MRCU, previously told the Cayman Compass, the unit had looked at the Wolbachia technique, which he said was also a bio-technology method.
“Both are very interesting from a biological point of view. They are using modern biological methods and are fairly similar in concept.”
He said the Wolbachia method had drawbacks because it involved the release of females rather than just males, which do not bite, and was not “self limiting” in the same way as the genetically modified mosquito method, where the progeny of the adapted mosquitoes don’t survive to adulthood.
He acknowledged that there had been subsequent trials with the bacteria, which had eliminated some of those problems, and said it was a technique that could potentially be reconsidered for Cayman in the future.