Cayman’s genetically modified mosquito project has not worked as effectively as government hoped and will be abandoned, Health Minister Dwayne Seymour said Thursday.
He told legislators that there were no plans for any further investment in the technology, pioneered by British biotech firm Oxitec, which had partnered with Cayman’s Mosquito Research and Control Unit over the past few years.
Mr. Seymour said, “Their tenure comes to an end Dec. 31 and that will be, I think, the final time you will hear about Oxitec, at least being paid by the government.
“I have always had my concerns about the method, although I always want to try new methods and be a trailblazer too. It needs to work and it wasn’t getting the results we thought we could get.”
Mr. Seymour’s statement during a Finance Committee hearing Thursday was far more definitive than any earlier public statements on the future of the program. Oxitec and MRCU released a joint statement earlier this month indicating that they were winding down this year’s trial deployment, but both parties insisted they were open to future collaboration.
Asked for comment Saturday, Oxitec said in a statement that it was still discussing the details of future partnership with the MRCU and refuted suggestions that the technology had not worked.
Oxitec breeds male mosquitoes with a genetic modification that ensures 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.
The latest trial deployment, held in West Bay this year, was designed to test how they could be used alongside more traditional methods to control the population of Aedes aegypti mosquitoes, which can carry and spread diseases like dengue and Zika.
Oxitec said in a statement Saturday, “The results of this research collaboration are currently being analyzed by scientists on the program’s joint MRCU-Oxitec steering committee. While the steering committee has yet to finalize its evaluation of the data, the early indications are that the joint intervention achieved positive suppression results.
“This project was not designed to be an intervention, but rather a scientific evaluation of a new, integrated approach to combat Aedes aegypti using a scientific protocol that was jointly developed by MRCU and Oxitec.”
According to the statement, “both parties remain jointly committed to evaluating how best to integrate traditional vector control and Friendly Mosquitoes using scientific rigor.”
During Thursday’s debate, legislators expressed concern about public funds being spent on the project, which they claimed was not working.
Mr. Seymour said he had never been comfortable with the method. Other legislators applauded the decision to terminate the program.
Anthony Eden, an independent legislator for Savannah, said, “I’m glad to hear the minister is intending to take this action … It is not effective. In the district of West Bay, it was a 105 percent failure feeding these foreign mosquitoes to our Caymanians.”
Chris Saunders, MLA for Bodden Town West, questioned how much money had been spent on the project over the last several years.
He said, “Can the minister give this committee the undertaking to go look and see the money we have spent on this program? We can’t be spending money like this, it fails, and we walk away without learning from it.”
The Cayman Compass understands the $588,000 invested in this year’s trial is the only direct financial contribution government has made to the project. Previous test deployments have been funded by Oxitec, though they have involved the use of some government resources.
In 2017, then MRCU director Bill Petrie hailed the success of the technology and government was on the brink of signing an $8 million agreement to use the GM mosquitoes across the Cayman Islands. But that plan was aborted at the last minute in late 2017 amid budget cuts and concerns from MRCU scientists that the results claimed by Oxitec may have been overstated.