MRCU Boss- It is completely safe
Some 20,000 genetically modified (GM) mosquitoes (mozzies) took flight on Thursday morning (28 July) in West Bay signaling the formal commencement of the innovative Mosquito Research and Control Unit (MRCU)/ Oxitec project in Cayman.
“The method is completely safe and has been found to be so by various agencies and in particular the World Health Organisation (WHO),” MRCU Director Dr Bill Petrie said on Thursday at the West Bay Health Clinic as he held on to an empty plastic pot which had held 1,000 GM mosquitoes before they were set free to seek out the wild female Aedes aegypti mosquitoes.
However even as Cayman launched its attack on the disease carrying vector mosquito, a scientific report coming out of Brazil on Thursday pointed out that scientists have found the Zika virus in the Culex quinquefasciatus mosquito, a far more common and widespread species than the Aedes aegypti mosquito previously identified as the vector for the virus.
“The findings of research by the South American country’s top public health institute, the Oswaldo Cruz Foundation (Fiocruz), suggest that Brazil may need to change its Zika response strategy, and comes as a blow to a nation in the grip of an outbreak less than two weeks before tens of thousands of visitors arrive for the Olympics,” the report said. (See Regional news on page 12 for the full story)
Thursday’s GM mosquito release in West Bay came two days after Grand Court judge Justice Ingrid Mangatal discontinued her stay preventing the continuation of the project and a near two-week delay in executing the release. This was due to a judicial review filed by anti-GM mosquito campaigners Dwene Ebanks and his group Caymanians United to Suspend GM Mosquito Project.
On Monday (25 July) the judge threw out the judicial review, which was filed by Mr Ebanks and his attorneys at HSM against the National Conservation Council and the Department of Environment which granted the permit for the project.
Justice Mangatal held that the application to stop the release of genetically modified mosquitoes in West Bay was “without grounds.”
Dr Petrie admitted that the court action, coupled with some administrative issues, caused a one-month delay in the execution of the project.
However, he contended, “It’s not the end of the world, it is not ideal and all the more reason to get on with it now especially given the fact that we have a fairly wet July and the weather recently has been ideal for Aedes aegypti for breeding, again all the more reason to get it,” he told The Cayman Reporter in an interview following the release.
Dr Petrie, together with Dr Renaud Lacroix project manager Oxitec Cayman and other personnel, said they were happy that the project was finally able to get off the ground and to begin the scientific effort to suppress the Aedes aegypti mosquito population.
“I am very pleased to get the project underway. We are a little bit behind time, but it is important that we get the project back on track. So this is the first of the releases of the genetically modified Aedes aegypti,” Dr Petrie said.
The MRCU boss, who also resides in West Bay, said the district was selected for many reasons, but specifically because “it is a hotspot for Aedes aegypti mosquito and also because we have had incidents of Dengue and Chikunguya fever in West Bay in the past.”
Added to that, Dr Petrie also pointed out that Cayman is surrounded by Zika which is affecting the region and three confirmed cases have already been announced on island.
This, he said, is why “I think it is important that we get the project going.”
The project, he said, is to run for the next nine months and the MRCU/Oxitec will be doing a lot more of the releases.
“This is just the beginning of the project. We are going to be doing a tremendous amount of monitoring (as well.) That will be key from now to see the effect on the Adese aegypti population,” he said.
It is expected that some 22 million mozzies will be released in West Bay, which is the district that was found to have the highest population of the deadly mosquitoes.
The monitoring process, he explained, will involve samples of both the adult mosquito population that is the flying mosquitoes which will be captured with special traps, and egg traps for the larvae.
The MRCU Director hastened to add that neither Thursday’s release nor the upcoming releases will yield immediate results as it will take some time to see the drop in the Aedes aegypti numbers.
“This is not like using an insecticide. You are not going to get result overnight so it will take some time to see the results,” he said.
The plan, he said, at the moment is to have three releases per week over a period of about nine months.
However, “it may be a few months before we see a significant reduction. It is all the more challenging because we are into the mosquito season and we are into the rainy season so that may take a little more longer than if we had started in the dry season for example,” he explained.
Prior to the release there were rumours on social media that the anti-GM campaigners had planned to demonstrate against Thursday’s exercise, but the release was unhindered.
“The court has made its decision and the judge has given her reason in writing and so the project is going ahead and just to remind people that this is being done for the community as a whole and is being done for public health reasons and to serve the whole community, starting off in West Bay,” Dr Petrie contended.
His view was shared by Dr Lacroix, who also said he was confident that the court would have found in their favour since the proper procedure was followed in obtaining the permit for the project.
“We know we did our job properly in terms of regulatory process within MRCU and applied to the regulatory bodies that should have been applied to in the proper form and we were confident that the NCC did they due diligence and they did come back to us with some questions, they did not give us an easy time to give us the permits,” he said.
Dr Lacroix pointed out that a paper published on Monday showed that 1.6 million potential pregnant women are at risk of Zika this year in the Americas.
“This highlights the need for it. We are no different from any pesticide company or trap selling company that sells lethal traps to kill mosquitoes, we are just doing the same thing and we are selling our products to try to control those mosquitoes,” he said.
The male sterile mosquitoes, which are expected to mate with wild Aedes aegypti mosquitoes, only feed on fruit juices and nectar, Dr Petrie said, as he assured the GM mosqutoes will not bite humans.
In fact, he said anatomically the male mosquitoes cannot bite as their bodies are not designed that way.
“Male mosquitoes do not bite because they do not produce eggs. The females take blood in order to produce eggs. The male mosquitoes do not have the piercing mouthpaths to be able to bite. They take sugar from nectar, flowers,” he pointed out.
He said the MCRU will continue with other mosquito control methods, such as using conventional insecticides, the air craft or fogging trucks.
“We may have to be flexible when we do the releases, we could coordinate the releases along with the spraying activities. These mosquitoes that are released today (Thursday), for example will only live two or three days anyway so it does not matter continue using the insecticide controls,” Dr Petrie added.
Councillor for Health Roy McTaggart, who is currently attending the PAHO UK Overseas Territories Ministers of Health Meeting in DC, told The Cayman Reporter on Thursday, “I am delighted with the news of the first release today. My only regret is that I was not on island to witness it. It is time now for the critics to stand aside and allow MRCU to do what they do best.”
How the technique works
The “Friendly Aedes aegypti” is a genetically modified male mosquito that cannot bite or transmit diseases. When it mates with a local female Aedes aegypti mosquito, the offspring die before being able to reproduce. Hence, with successive releases, the population of the Zika, dengue and chikungunya mosquito is reduced.