Last October, the government released a report touting the success of the Mosquito Research and Control Unit’s genetically modified mosquito program, claiming the venture between the MRCU and the British biotech firm Oxitec resulted in a “62 percent suppression rate” of the disease-spreading insects in the West Bay release area.
However, that report contained inaccurate information that overstated the program’s success, according to recently released internal emails between government and MRCU officials.
Moreover, emails state that the report was not formulated by government or the MRCU, but by Oxitec itself, which stood to gain from the report’s positive results – around that time, the company was aiming to close a US$8 million deal that would have expanded the project to the entire island.
When an MRCU official brought this to the attention of his superior, he was told that the public could not be told that the ostensibly public report was, in fact, formulated by a private sector company.
According to the emails, the issues raised by the report were discussed by the MRCU after the Compass published an article last October, reporting on the 62-percent suppression statistic claimed in the MRCU’s report.
A day after the Compass published the article, MRCU Assistant Director Alan Wheeler wrote to government’s communications arm, Government Information Services, expressing his disapproval that an inaccurate figure was being disseminated to the public.
“MRCU was expecting to see a reduction in the region of 90%+ as had been reported in all other Oxitec releases. This was not achieved and the figure of 62% reduction is also not accepted by MRCU,” he stated. “I understand the article was written by a Compass journalist, but I believe we need to clarify to the press our current position – that we require further data collection in order to determine the level of suppression that can be achieved using the Oxitec mosquito.”
In response, a Government Information Services communications officer told Mr. Wheeler that the 62-percent suppression rate figure was in an MRCU report that was tabled by the National Conservation Council. However, Mr. Wheeler responded that the “MRCU Annual Report was actually written by Oxitec, and we remain divided upon the level of suppression achieved.”
That same day, Mr. Wheeler also wrote to MRCU then-Acting Director Nancy Barnard, expressing similar views on the report’s inaccuracy, and suggesting that Oxitec disseminated the findings directly through Government Information Services rather than consulting with MRCU officials first.
“I do not think Oxitec should be communicating directly with [Government Information Services] on these press statements, as [Government Information Services] is meant to be representing the views of government (i.e. MRCU) and not Oxitec,” he stated in his email.
Two days later, Mr. Wheeler received a response from Ms. Barnard, who has since returned to her previous position as the deputy chief officer in the Ministry of Health, Environment, Culture and Housing after James McNelly was made the MRCU’s new director in February.
Ms. Barnard’s email thanked Mr. Wheeler for raising those issues with government, but did not mention any efforts that would be made to clarify with the public about the actual efficacy of the genetically modified mosquito program. Instead, Ms. Barnard stated that government cannot tell the public that Oxitec created the report.
“While apparently Oxitec contributed in large part to the MRCU report referenced, at the end of the day it is an MRCU Report, so we cannot tell the public that Oxitec authored it,” she stated in her email, which was obtained via a freedom of information request and published on Monday by the nonprofit group GeneWatch UK, which has long been critical of the genetically modified mosquito program.
Meanwhile, it’s not clear what the program’s true suppression rate was in the West Bay target area, nor is it clear what the scope is of the current MRCU-Oxitec suppression project. MRCU officials, Oxitec officials, and Government Information Services did not answer Compass inquiries about these issues. Former MRCU Director William Petrie, who spearheaded the GM mosquito program until he left the unit to take up the post of director of Miami-Dade County Mosquito Control and Habitat Management in July 2017, could not be reached for comment.
An earlier series of emails between the MRCU and Oxitec – also obtained by GeneWatch UK – 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.
In February, Ms. Barnard told the Compass that 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.