The release of genetically modified mosquitoes in Grand Cayman has stopped and no new public funds have been committed to the project for next year.
Government has not ruled out future collaboration with British biotech firm Oxitec, but appears to be scaling down its commitment to the controversial technique as a means of eradicating the disease-spreading Aedes aegypti mosquito in the Cayman Islands.
An $8 million plan for an islandwide rollout of the genetically modified mosquito program was aborted at the last minute in late 2017 amid budget cuts and concerns that the technology has yet to fully prove itself.
Instead government opted for a much smaller-scale deployment, testing the GM mosquitoes in combination with other suppression techniques in a $588,000 trial throughout 2018.
Now that project is winding down and officials say there are no plans to make any financial commitment to the technology, pioneered by Oxitec, next year.
According to a joint statement from the Mosquito Research and Control Unit and Oxitec, the two entities are still discussing the possibility for future collaboration.
The statement indicated that the 2018 trials had been designed to test how well Oxitec’s methods worked alongside more traditional control methods. It indicates that releases of the genetically modified mosquitoes have now stopped, a month earlier than originally planned, but scientists continue to monitor and analyze data.
MRCU Director James McNelly said in the statement his department and Oxitec had also regularly reviewed data during the release phase of the program. He gave no indication of the results of the trial except to say that mosquito population numbers have been generally low this season.
He said, “As intended, this programme provided both government and Oxitec with valuable information that we can use going forward. The project has given us valuable insight into how Oxitec’s approach might be integrated with our conventional tools.”
Whatever the results of the 2018 trials, it does not appear they were convincing enough to persuade government to make an immediate financial commitment to the technology going forward.
The statement indicates, “While the project, which cost Government $588,000, has now stopped releases of Oxitec’s male mosquitoes, MRCU and Oxitec are considering a further, no-cost collaboration in 2019.”
It remains possible that, subject to further trials in 2019, government could make a long-term investment in genetically modified mosquitoes.
Oxitec CEO Grey Frandsen indicated the company was interested in continuing the partnership and thanked government for facilitating the 2018 project.
“This project will help shape how we can build new interventions in the future. We applaud MRCU’s willingness to pilot new, innovative tools that can play a role in combating this disease-spreading mosquito. It is efforts like this that will help to eliminate this dangerous public health threat, and we look forward to future collaborations.”
The new position represents a significant cooling of interest from government over the last 18 months. In June of last year, the National Conservation Council approved the islandwide rollout of the technology. It was later revealed that government had tentatively committed to a US$8 million two-year rollout of genetically modified mosquitoes, scheduled to start in 2018, only to back out at the last minute.
Internal emails, released under the Freedom of Information Law, showed that MRCU scientists were skeptical about the efficacy of the technology and believed Oxitec was overstating the results.
Dr. McNelly, who took over as head of the MRCU in March, told the Compass earlier this year that there was strong evidence that the technique did work. However, he said GM mosquitoes should not be considered a “silver bullet” and any future deployment would be as part of a combined approach.
“It has potential as a tool among many tools that could be combined to achieve the eradication of the Aedes aegypti mosquitoes from Grand Cayman,” he said.