When the Oxitec contract formally ends, that will be “the last you hear about Oxitec being paid by government” – minister

Needless to say, we are not surprised by this development.

Minister claims GM mosquitoes didn’t work

Cayman News, 23 Nov 2018

The environmental health minister, who has responsibility for the Mosquito Research and Control Unit (MRCU). has said the release of genetically modified Aedes aegypti mosquitoes in West Bay did not work and has confirmed that when the Oxitec contract formally ends on 31 December, that will be “the last you hear about Oxitec being paid by government”. Answering questions in Finance Committee on Thursday night, Dwayne Seymour said that the project “wasn’t getting the results that we thought we could get”, and if not for the “good MRCU director, Dr Jim, we would have never have known about it”.

Following an ambiguous press release from the MRCU and Oxitec ten days ago that danced around the situation and implied that work with the controversial bio-engineered insects might continue in the future, the minister said that the project was not effective and it was only because of the arrival of a new director at MRCU, Dr Jim McNelly, that the ministry learned that it was not working.

Seymour said the bio-engineering firm had wanted to try a different method after the one involving the release of sterile male mosquitoes had not really worked but. However, the minister said he was uncomfortable with that as he had never been happy about the project in the first place.

He said that using another method would have been using Caymanians as guinea pigs and putting people at risk when “we don’t know what was going on”.

Seymour confirmed that government spent a total of CI$580,000 for the work done during this budget cycle, which he said was a lot of money, but he was not clear when asked by opposition member Chris Saunders (BTW) if the department had learned anything from the failed project.

The minister told the committee that he wished he could say more about what had happened, but said he would “leave it at that”, in a further cryptic reference to the project, which over the last two years has seen millions of the GM mosquitoes released in a location in West Bay.

The project had originally been heavily championed by all of the district MLAs and the premier when he was in control of the unit. Government even spent tens of thousands of dollars successfully fighting local activists who had object to it because of their concerns over the experimental nature of the project, the environmental and public health risks it posed, as well as the lack of proven efficacy.

The previous MRCU director, Dr Bill Petrie, who headed up the unit for decades before he recently moved to Florida to take over the Miami-Dade Mosquito Control Division, had been a staunch advocate of the trials. He had warned that battling the invasive and dangerous Aedes aegypti was becoming increasingly problematic as it was evermore resistant to larvacides.

Unlike Cayman’s various native mosquitoes that live largely in the swap and are controlled through aerial pellet drops, the Aedes aegypti breeds in and around urban areas, close to humans, already making it harder to tackle. But with a dwindling number of effective insecticides, Petrie had warned that the MRCU would soon run out of options unless it tried something new.

Having watched the development of the science of GM bugs by the original Oxitec company, a spin-off from the research work done at Oxford University, Petrie invited the researchers to conduct a pilot study in Cayman as far back as 2010, which appeared to be very successful.

However, in 2015 Oxitec was bought by the US-based synthetic biology firm, Intrexon Corporation, which was a much more commercial organisation that sought to profit from the technology, despite a number of challenges remaining around efficacy and the release of higher numbers than claimed of the female engineered mosquitoes, which could bite.