While Justice Ingrid Mangatal ruled on Monday (25 July) that the Judicial Review (JR) brought by Dwene Ebanks and the group Caymanians United to Suspend GM Mosquito Project, was without grounds and is expected to deliver the reasons for her ruling today (Tuesday 26 July), questions have been asked in the public domain who is supporting this legal challenge.
According to information obtained by The Cayman Reporter, the organisation that has both provided funding for attorneys and other resources to the opposition group is called Friends of the Earth (FOE), a global network representing more than two million activists in 75 different countries. Friends of the Earth is comprised of two distinct organisations – Friends of the Earth Trust and Friends of the Earth Limited.
According to a rudimentary search of the organisation’s website, www.foe.org, they state that within the United States, the organisation advocates in the halls of Congress, in state capitals, and with community groups around the country. With offices in Washington, D.C., and Berkeley, CA, and members in all 50 states, FOE urges policymakers to defend the environment and work towards a healthy environment for all people. FOE is also said to work in collaboration with the widely known, GreenPeace organisation.
FOE describes itselfas an outspoken leader in the environmental and progressive communities, which seeks to change the perception of the public, media and policy makers — and effect policy change — with hard-hitting, well-reasoned policy analysis and advocacy campaigns that describe what needs to be done, rather than what is seen as politically feasible or politically correct. The organisation has been in existence for 47 years.
During their over 40 year legacy, recent achievements include: placing tougher limits on air pollution from ships, persuading thousands of grocery stores to commit to not sell genetically engineered salmon, should it come to market, thwarted the construction of dangerous nuclear reactors, and exposed corruption in the review of the proposed Keystone XL tar sands oil pipeline, a Canadian company who proposed a pipeline that would carry up to 830,000 barrels per day of tar sands oil from Alberta, Canada more than two thousand miles to refineries on the U.S. Gulf Coast. The pipeline would cross six American states including Montana, South Dakota, Nebraska, Kansas, Oklahoma and Texas.
Also according to their 2015 Annual Report, President Erich Pica and Chairman of the Board, Arlie Schardt state that in addition to the other progammes outlined, the group are also “leaders in the push to ban bee-killing pesticides and to eliminate the use of antibiotics in animal factory farming.”
According to the 2015 Annual Report, FOE has $11.5 million in assets, $868k in liabilities and net asset liabilities and is funded through various means including: Restricted Grants, Un-restricted and designated gifts, contributions and bequests as well as “other” financing. 85.3 percent of the monies collected annually are used to fund on-going projects that span the globe, with the remainder used to service administrative costs. In 2015 the organisation received just over $10 million in grants and a further $2.4 million through “other”, undefined means.
In the Cayman Islands, scientists who support FOE argue that Oxitec, the British-based biotech firm who in 2009-10 conducted the first ever field releases of GM mosquitoes which took place in the Cayman Islands, has only shown its technology can reduce mosquito populations in the immediate term in controlled settings.
According to a briefing published by FOE, Oxitec has not proven that such population reductions lead to disease eradication.
FOE says their concerns are both environmental and ethical. The behaviour of these mosquitoes and the risks they may pose to human health and the environment are hard to predict, according to FOE, leaving the public with more questions than answers.
According to FOE, the most immediate environmental risk represents a decline in Aedes aegypti could leave an ecological niche to be filled by other, possibly more harmful pests. For example the Asian Tiger mosquito, Aedes albopictus, is considered one of the most invasive species in the world and carries many diseases including dengue fever and the West Nile virus.
This they say, could mean the spread of more disease and increased use of pesticides.
Ethically speaking, according to paragraph 24 of the World Medical Association’s Declaration of Helsinki – Ethical Principles for Medical Research Involving Human Subjects, the cornerstone of human research ethics, states – “In medical research involving competent human subjects, each potential subject must be adequately informed of the aims, methods, sources of funding, any possible conflicts of interest, institutional affiliations of the researcher, the anticipated benefits and potential risks of the study and the discomfort it may entail, and any other relevant aspects of the study. The potential subject must be informed of the right to refuse to participate in the study or to withdraw consent to participate at any time without reprisal. Special attention should be given to the specific information needs of individual potential subjects as well as to the methods used to deliver the information. After ensuring that the potential subject has understood the information, the physician or another appropriately qualified individual must then seek the potential subject’s freely-given informed consent, preferably in writing. If the consent cannot be expressed in writing, the non-written consent must be formally documented and witnessed”
This relates to what the local opposition group led by Dwene Ebanks has argued concerning the lack of public education on the process as well and more formal details on the institutional affiliations of Oxitec and its partners, which include Cayman’s Mosquito and Control Unit (MRCU), a division of the Cayman Islands government.
According to FOE, Oxitec has already shown a disregard of the importance of free and informed consent. The first releases of genetically engineered (GE) mosquitoes took place in the Cayman Islands — first a small-scale trial in 2009 followed by the release of three million GE mosquitoes in 2010. According to Genewatch UK, the Cayman experiments were not revealed to the public until one month after the initial release and “no public consultation was undertaken on potential risks and informed consent was not sought from local people.”
Equally troubling, according to FOE, is that the Cayman Islands — a territory of the United Kingdom — does not have any bio-safety laws and is not covered by either the Cartagena Protocol on Bio-safety or the Aarhus Convention on Access to Information, Public Participation in Decision-making and Access to Justice in Environmental Matters, despite the UK being a Party to these treaties.
These conventions would have required publication of and consultation on an environmental risk assessment prior to the release of GM mosquitoes. Instead, the only regulatory requirements were a local permit from the Cayman Islands Agriculture Department and a notification that GM mosquito eggs were shipped internationally.
When asked if they believed GM mosquito’s may represent a real, lasting solution, the briefing challenges what it calls “misleading claims that Oxitec’s mosquitoes are sterile and make it appear as if the company’s technology is a foolproof way to bring an end to mosquito-borne diseases.”
FOE scientists have argued that Oxitec’s technology does not make its mosquitoes sterile; rather, they are engineered to be dependent on tetracycline and die in its absence. However, according to their independent studies, in fact, 3 to 4 percent of Oxitec’s mosquitoes survived into adulthood in the lab in the absence of tetracycline despite supposedly carrying the lethal gene. If in the presence of the common antibiotic tetracycline, an Oxitec document showed, survival rates could be as high as 15 percent.
Since tetracycline is commonly found in sewage, and Aedes aegypti have been found to breed in sewage treatment plants, septic tanks; this however is contrary to statement supplied by MRCU who argue that the Aedes aegypti only breeds in fresh water, not salt or brackish water as would be found in sewage or other bodies of water as claimed by independent research conducted by FOE.
Additionally, Oxitec claims it only plans to release male GE mosquitoes into the environment since it’s the female mosquito that bites humans and therefore spreads diseases such as dengue fever. But its process of sorting males and females is also not guaranteed. The sorting is conducted by hand and could result in up to 0.5 percent of the released insects being female.
This, according to FOE, would raise new human health concerns as people could be bit by GM mosquitoes. It could also hamper efforts to limit the spread of dengue fever, they say.
Mosquitoes reproduce continually and Oxitec readily admits it will need to continually release GM mosquitoes in a given area in order to keep populations low. FOE argues that this system locks communities and nations into a permanent scheme of repeated ongoing payments to Oxitec once releases begin since Oxitec’s mosquitoes are patented.
As such, Oxitech stands to make significant profits if countries and communities must make continuous payments to it. These payments would presumably continue endlessly unless the community wanted the release of GM mosquitoes to stop in which case disease prevalence could rise when conventional mosquito populations rebound.
According to Friends of the Earth, Oxitech has yet to provide data on what would happen to mosquito populations or prevalence of disease if releases were halted.
Researchers also acknowledge that they do not know much about the correlation between population levels of Aedes aegypti and dengue fever infection in humans. According to a 2002 article in Science, the density of Aedes aegypti populations is at best weakly correlated with human infection rates. This is due to the fact that mosquitoes “persist and effectively transmit dengue virus even at very low population densities because they preferentially and frequently bite humans.” Additionally, any introduction of GM mosquitoes that does not eradicate a population could lead to increased survivability of the dengue virus and increased risk of human infection.
FOE also argue that Oxitec has never stated that it’s technology will lead to population collapses; rather, it states it is only able to decrease existing mosquito populations by upwards of 90 percent.
This claim however, according to FOE, is based on unpublished results from the Cayman Islands. In reality they say it remains unknown whether population suppression using this approach would be effective in the long term or over larger areas. Continual releases would need to occur every month or every few weeks, with upwards of a million mosquitoes per release.
In its conclusion, Friends of the Earth stipulate that despite Oxitec’s claims, questions still remain as to whether GM mosquitoes are safe for the environment, safe for people or are even effective in fighting the spread of dengue fever.
While the goal of limiting the spread of disease is laudable they say, the group contends that too many questions remain to allow the release of genetically engineered mosquitoess in either the US or the Cayman Islands.