A multimillion dollar plan for the islandwide rollout of Cayman’s genetically modified mosquito program has been significantly scaled back amid budget cuts and concerns that the technology has yet to fully prove itself.
A series of emails between Mosquito Research and Control Unit officials and British biotech firm Oxitec, released under the Freedom of Information Law, show the two parties were close to agreement on a two-year, US$8 million deal in August last year.
But government backed away from the arrangement, budgeting only CI$940,000 in 2018 for a much smaller-scale deployment of the technique in West Bay – essentially a rerun of the pilot deployment in that area from 2016 and 2017.
The decision appears to have been driven by a mix of budget issues and concerns that more data is needed to assess the effectiveness of the method of suppressing local populations of the disease-spreading Aedes aegypti mosquito.
There is no evidence of any safety or public health concerns on either side and the primary issue seems to be value for money. The total budget for the Mosquito Research and Control Unit for the next two years is CI$14.9 million.
The email exchanges reveal, for the first time, the likely costs of a large-scale deployment of genetically modified mosquitoes in the Cayman Islands. The initial pilot project in West Bay, which ended in August last year, was funded largely by Oxitec, though government made a US$200,000 contribution to extend it beyond the agreed deadline.
An Aug. 7 email from Richard Adey, Oxitec’s regional manager for the Caribbean, to Nancy Barnard, the acting director of Cayman’s Mosquito Research and Control Unit, suggests that a US$8 million plan had been agreed for a national rollout in 2018/19.
“Needless to say, we are delighted to be intensifying our work with the MRCU,” Mr. Adey wrote in that email.
A little over a month later, the picture appears to have changed completely.
In a letter to Jennifer Ahearn, the head civil servant in the ministry responsible for the MRCU, Mr. Adey expressed concern that the national rollout was not proceeding.
He said Oxitec was “surprised” that the decision to “expand our technique throughout Grand Cayman appears to have been revised.”
The letter goes on to express concern about the lack of clear messaging and “scientific rationale” for decisions coming from the MRCU since the departure of the former director of the unit, Bill Petrie, who left for a similar job in Miami in July 2017.
“This collaborative cooperation appears somewhat diminished and there is a lack of consistency and objectivity emerging,” Mr. Adey wrote.
“Our perception is that the positioning of our technology and its deployment in Grand Cayman appears to be changing, and the technical goalposts moved without good scientific rationale.”
Despite that impasse, the emails show that by the end of the year, the partners were close to agreement on a deal for a new project in West Bay only in 2018.
The emails also suggest some MRCU scientists had expressed concern about the effectiveness of the technology.
In exchanges between Mr. Adey and Ms. Barnard, both acknowledge that the GM mosquitoes have yet to meet “suppression targets,” though this is partly attributed to an unspecified “setback” unconnected to the efficacy of the technique.
Both acknowledge that the technology is showing “positive trends,” though the actual suppression data is redacted from the FOI response. There also appears to be some internal difference of opinion within the MRCU on whether there is enough data to justify further investment in GM mosquitoes.
Responding to questions from the Compass this week, Ms. Barnard acknowledged a draft agreement had been developed for the national rollout but said there was never a signed contract.
She said the MRCU and Oxitec were still in the process of developing a new program for West Bay in 2018, involving using GM mosquitoes in combination with other techniques.
She said the decision not to go ahead with a national rollout was “partially dictated by budget and partially to allow MRCU scientists to assess a new integrated vector management approach with Oxitec in the same area of West Bay as in 2018.”
She acknowledged there had been differences of opinion between government and its partner but said they worked closely together to resolve these issues.
The emails also show Oxitec chasing payment for extending the project in West Bay beyond the end of the contract in April 2017.
It was not clear from the messages if the issue had been resolved, but Ms. Barnard confirmed Oxitec would be paid US$200,000 for extending that pilot deployment through to August 2017.
It is understood that this is the only direct financial contribution government has made to the project so far.
Kerrie Cox, a lawyer who made the FOI request on behalf of his client, U.S. nonprofit Genewatch, said the emails showed the technology had been over hyped.
“Although the actual test results from the West Bay ‘pilot deployment’ of GMMs [genetically modified mosquitoes] have been redacted from the FOI disclosure, it is pretty clear that they did not achieve anything like the rates of Aedes aegypti suppression, that were repeatedly suggested as achievable, by former MRCU Director Bill Petrie ….
“For the first time, we now have an idea of the cost of a full deployment programme of GMMs in the Cayman Islands and, at this juncture, it is difficult to reconcile any notion that this project would represent value for money, if it were to proceed.”