EDITORIAL – The revealing (and disturbing) MRCU/Oxitec emails

“I have been informed that a new contract has been submitted for signing that will cost CI Government in the region of $8,000,000 over the next three years. Based on the results to date of the Oxitec mosquito release I believe it would be very unwise to enter into such a contract. To date a technology that is being sold as ‘proven’ has failed to impact on the Aedes aegypti population … CI Government should not be expected to pay for a technology that has as yet failed to deliver any significant results.”
– Alan Wheeler, assistant director, Mosquito Research & Control Unit, April 4, 2017

The cache of Cayman Islands government emails released this week by nonprofit group GeneWatch UK pulls back the curtain on a behind-the-scenes drama playing out among the Mosquito Research and Control Unit, the Ministry of Health, Environment, Culture and Housing, and biotech firm Oxitec in regard to an ongoing experimental control program that uses genetically modified mosquitoes.

If we were to designate any one individual as “the hero” in this sorry saga, it would be MRCU Assistant Director Alan Wheeler, who, according to the documents, flagged potential inaccuracies in the stated results of Oxitec’s mosquito suppression trial, steadfastly expressed his beliefs to colleagues and superiors, and, throughout, appeared to stand strong on behalf of the mission of the MRCU and the government’s responsibility to the public.

For example, Dr. Wheeler cautioned the MRCU’s then-Acting Director Nancy Barnard (in effect, his boss) and ministerial Chief Officer Jennifer Ahearn (his boss’s boss) against taking action based on Oxitec’s claims without third-party vetting from the World Health Organization and Caribbean Public Health Agency:

“For MRCU to proceed without the recommendation from this WHO advisory group is (in my opinion) very unwise. Not only could it divert much needed resources from our own control efforts but it could lead to other countries following our example and investing their own vector control resources in an unproven technique. This could have severe negative consequences for Public Health in the region as a whole.”

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If it were not for Dr. Wheeler and MRCU Research Manager Fraser Allen, it seems likely that Oxitec’s claim that its program had led to a “62 percent suppression rate” of the disease-carrying Aedes aegypti population in the West Bay pilot area would have gone unchallenged by government officials. That may well have led to the awarding of a two-year, US$8 million contract to Oxitec based on, at best, incomplete data.

Instead, the government budgeted “only” $940,000 in 2018, essentially for Oxitec to rerun its pilot tests in West Bay from 2016 and 2017.

What is far more troubling than the dollars and cents involved are the complacent and complicit attitudes demonstrated by certain public officials when Dr. Wheeler shared his concerns.

After he read an October 2017 story in the Cayman Compass about the mosquito program results contained in the “MRCU report,” Dr. Wheeler protested to government that the report “was actually written by Oxitec” and that MRCU should “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.”

Ms. Barnard responded to Mr. Wheeler’s suggestion by seeming to double down on the deception: “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.”

And why not? Because then the public might learn that the “government” report was actually written by a private company seeking a multimillion-dollar contract from government for a program that may, or may not, actually work?

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