Florida Keys

Previous GMO mosquito project's success may have been overstated, emails reveal

A female 'Aedes aegypti' mosquito draws blood from a human host.
A female 'Aedes aegypti' mosquito draws blood from a human host. Stock photo

A British biotech company seeking federal approval to release millions of genetically modified mosquitoes at 12 sites in the Florida Keys to combat naturally occurring mosquitoes that spread deadly diseases like Zika and dengue fever has touted for months its success in an identical pilot project carried out in the Cayman Islands as evidence of the proposal's efficacy.

But emails released this week to a United Kingdom activist group through a freedom of information request reveal scientists working for the Cayman government's Mosquito Research and Control Unit dispute the results reported by the company, Oxitec.

"None of the scientists at MRCU would have said that the project was a success," Dr. Alan Wheeler, assistant director of the MRCU's research and development office, wrote in a Feb. 18 email to Nancy Barnard, then-acting MRCU director.

Wheeler in other emails, released and obtained by GeneWatch UK, slammed the government's public information office for allowing a July 2017 report that celebrated the project using numbers he found dubious to be released to a local newspaper last October.

The results reported in an Oct. 24, 2017, article in the Cayman Compass contain the same figure Oxitec and its supporters have been using to sell the project in the Keys — that the GMO mosquito release achieved a 62 percent suppression rate in the wild population of Aedes aegypti mosquitoes in the control area of West Bay between the summers of 2016 and 2017.

"I consider the article does not accurately reflect the views of the MRCU as to the effectiveness of the release," Wheeler wrote in an Oct. 25, 2017, email to Catherine MacGillvray, an information officer with the Government Information Service. "Targets were not set for the release and therefore, no targets were achieved. MRCU was expecting to see a reduction in the region of 90%+ as had been reported in all other Oxitec releases. This was not achieved and the figure of 62% reduction is also not accepted by MRCU."

The Cayman Compass reported the document containing the 62 percent number was an MRCU report, which technically it was, but Wheeler said the majority of it was written by Oxitec.

"The MRCU Annual Report was written by Oxitec and we remain divided upon the level of suppression achieved," Wheeler wrote in another Oct. 25 email to MacGillvray. "It is unfortunate that it has been used for this newspaper story."

Barnard, then-acting director of MRCU, warned Wheeler against telling the public that Oxitec authored the report since, ultimately, it had an MRCU stamp on it.

"There is one caveat here," Barnard wrote in an Oct. 27 email to Wheeler. "While apparently Oxitec contributed a large part to the MRCU report, at the end of the day, it is an MRCU report, so we can't tell the public that Oxitec authored it."

Following the Cayman Compass story, the Government Information Service drafted the following statement that was to be given to journalists asking about the program, according to the emails:

"The deployment of the 'Friendly Aedes Aegypti Programme' in West Bank has been completed. MRCU is now in the process of reviewing this deployment, and is in negotiations with Oxitec to agree the way forward."

Barnard is quoted in a five-page statement released Thursday to FlKeysNews.com from the Government Information Service as saying her email has been taken out of context by critics of the project and incorrectly used to show she was trying to conceal information about the report. Not only was it an MRCU document, she said, it was signed by the agency's director at the time, William Petrie.

"Rather, I was stating that the public could not be told the report was formulated by a private sector company because that was not the case," Barnard wrote. "The June 2017 MRCU annual report on the Oxitec project was prepared by the MRCU in conjunction with Dr. Petrie's directorship."

Petrie was the MRCU director until July 2017. He is now the director of the Miami-Dade County Mosquito Control and Habitat Management. Petrie "signed off on the report by phone as he was off island at the time," the Cayman's Government Information Service stated in a bullet point statement released Thursday. Petrie did not respond to an email asking about the report.

Regarding the emails and the veracity of the 62 percent suppression rate cited in the report, the GIS states it was "based on one methodology of calculating and stating the suppression rate. In the time since the report was issued, MRCU scientists have had a further opportunity to review the data and believe that an alternative methodology of calculating and expressing the suppression rate needs to be determined and agreed."

Derric Nimmo, head of Oxitec's U.S. operations, said the company and MRCU have "had discussions and we're now in agreement" on a new methodology for calculating the suppression rate, which he said is still around 60 percent.

"It's not where we want to be, obviously, but we have moved forward with MRCU and signed signed a new contract to move ahead with the project." Nimmo said.

As part of the newly negotiated contract, according to the Government Information Service statement, the government will compare the suppression data using the GMO mosquitoes alone and "when varying levels of these mosquitoes is combined with traditional ground control measures as well as when ground control measures stand on their own."

Keys project

Oxitec applied to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency for an experimental-use permit to be allowed to release millions of lab-born, mostly male Aedes aegypti mosquitoes at yet-to-be-announced sites in Monroe County. The males, which don't bite, would mate with local females, which would birth offspring that would not live to adulthood. The purpose of the project is to wipe out or significantly reduce Aedes aegypti populations.

The EPA extended the public comment period for the proposal until June 7. The original 30-day comment period was March 9 through April 9, but the agency extended it because of the high amount of initial responses it received.

The company, along with the Florida Keys Mosquito Control District, originally planned to release the GMO mosquitoes in the Lower Keys community of Key Haven. However, a non-binding November 2016 referendum on the item failed decisively there.

But, Keys-wide, the ballot initiative passed. The release sites, if the EPA signs off on the project, will be in areas where the referendum received the most votes, Mosquito Control representatives have said.

Where the Caymans project stands

In 2017, the Cayman Islands government was preparing to pay Oxitec $8 million over a three-year period to release the GMO mosquitoes throughout the country. But on Oct. 5, Barnard informed Oxitec that the MRCU instead budgeted $940,000 (Cayman dollars) for the project in 2018 and $750,000 in 2019.

But, according to the statement released Thursday by the Government Information Service, once the contract for the 2018 program expires, the "Government is under no obligation to renew."

The government to date has made no direct payments to Oxitec, "although the parties are still discussing some costs for the extension of the previous programme," the statement released Thursday reads. The government is expected to pay Oxitec $294,000 on May 31 and an identical payment later in the year," according to the statement.

For the programs in the Keys, Oxitec is seeking federal funding, Nimmo said.

In February, the Marathon City Council voted to draft a letter on Oxitec's behalf to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention asking for money for the Keys program.