(file photo)
Oxitec project manager Renaud Lacroix examines GM mosquito pupae in a lab on the MRCU premises. - PHOTOS: MATT LAMERS

Opposition MLA Kenneth Bryan has cried foul over the Mosquito Research and Control Unit’s hiring of Oxitech’s former lead scientist.

He registered his concern as MRCU Director Jim McNelly confirmed Tuesday that Dr. Renaud Lacroix was currently on contract with the MRCU as a senior research officer.

Lacroix was the former project manager of the Oxitech genetically modified mosquito (GM) programme launched in 2016.

Under that programme, modified male Aedes aegypti mozzies were released in Grand Cayman with the hope that it would mate with female mosquitoes to curb the population of the disease-carrying vector. However, the results of the project were not as successful as projected and it was discontinued.

Legislators during Finance Committee on Tuesday reviewed budgetary allocations for the MRCU. It was in that committee meeting that the George Town Central MLA queried if any Oxitech staff were employed at the unit.

McNelly informed lawmakers that Lacroix was hired.

Bryan expressed concern with the scientist’s employment given the “cloudiness” of the Oxitech programme.
“Considering the unfortunate negativity that was portrayed throughout this whole Oxitech deal, do you think this was a good thing for credibility of the department to have the lead investigator associated with it?… Do you not see the potential damage it could do to the department and the fears of people talking about testing of mosquitoes and what that can do to the psyche of the average Caymanian worried about mosquitoes biting them,” Bryan said, as he pressed the MRCU on Lacroix’s employment.

McNelly, in defending the hiring, said it was discussed with then chief officer Jennifer Ahearn, adding there was a need for a senior research officer.

“I can tell you as your director of MRCU I would not hire someone who pushed an agenda, who worked in the private industry that I thought was functioning as a spy or was functioning or doing things that [were] deleterious to the mission of the unit,” McNelly told the committee.

McNelly explained that Lacroix applied for an open position and was one of three people ultimately to be interviewed.

“That position is still open, no one has been hired. We saw a need in the organisation and so we brought Renaud to function as a senior research officer in our organisation as a contract employee which he still is. I can tell [you] and I stand by this – Renaud is a good scientist. He is a darn good team player, he is a very good team fit for the unit,” McNelly said.

He added that he would like to see Lacroix employed full time with the unit if possible.
Environment Minister Dwayne Seymour told members neither he nor the government was aware of Lacroix’s hiring.

“I appreciate the member’s concerns now that this has been brought to light. I would like you all to give me the opportunity, along with the acting chief officer, to evaluate and assess this new information that has been received,” Seymour said.

McNelly also added that he does not believe any of the genetically modified mosquitoes that were released under the Oxitech programme are still around.

“Those mosquitoes are gone… they were no longer being caught in the traps,” he said.