The National Conservation Council on Wednesday unanimously approved the islandwide rollout of the genetically modified mosquito program without the need for a new independent risk assessment.

Bill Petrie, head of the Mosquito Research and Control Unit, said a national program using the technique to fight the disease-spreading Aedes aegypti mosquito could begin in February next year.

He said contractual negotiations are ongoing between British biotech firm Oxitec and the Cayman Islands government, but Wednesday’s decision of the conservation council provides the regulatory approval for the project to proceed.

The permission is subject to some conditions, including the approval of the Medical Officer of Health, currently Dr. Samuel Williams-Rodriguez, who oversees the Public Health Department.

Mosquitoes are released through a tube at the back of a specially kitted-out Oxitec van. – PHOTO: TANEOS RAMSAY

In a “screening opinion” to the council, Department of Environment officials advised that international risk assessments conducted in trials in Brazil, Malaysia and the U.S. provided sufficient confidence to approve the application without the need for further inquiries. Oxitec also submitted its own risk assessment, which was reviewed by the council.

According to the screening evaluation, “The department is of the opinion that given the substantial body of risk assessments that have already been conducted internationally, sufficient information is available to allow the council to issue a permit if so minded, with precautionary conditions, including a requirement for ongoing monitoring.”

The application is open-ended and would allow the Mosquito Research and Control Unit to use genetically modified mosquitoes as part of its arsenal to fight the problem.

The proposal states, “The current application is for periodic imports of eggs followed by release of males limited only by a maximum of 2kg of eggs imported each month.

“This application is open ended both in time and geographically within the Cayman Islands, so should be considered as a permit request for operational deployment of this technology into the indefinite future.”

Renaud Lacroix of Oxitec examines a tray of mosquito larvae at the Mosquito Research and Control Unit lab on Thursday. – PHOTO: TANEOS RAMSAY

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.

West Bay program

Dr. Petrie said the West Bay program proved successful in dramatically reducing the prevalence of Aedes aegypti mosquitoes compared to control areas. He said that program will continue through the rainy season to provide further data and will eventually be absorbed into the national deployment.

He said the islandwide rollout will be integrated with other techniques, including the use of insecticides and “boots on the ground.”

He cautioned that GM mosquitoes are not a “silver bullet” for public health emergencies and would not prevent diseases like dengue and Zika from coming to Cayman. But in combination with other methods, they will help contain the spread of such diseases, which have no known cure.

The GM mosquitoes are modified so that their offspring die before reaching adulthood. The technique involves releasing millions of them into the wild so that through weight of numbers they will out-compete the resident males for mates and the population will collapse.

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