The Zika virus is scary. Zika infections during pregnancy have been linked to birth defects, including microcephaly. Because it is spread via mosquitoes, it can be difficult to stop its spread. Nearly 8,000 Zika infections have already been reported in Puerto Rico. In the continental United States most Zika cases appear to be travel related, but the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has reported 14 locally acquired Zika infections in Florida, and there is concern the disease could spread throughout the Southeast.
Worries about Zika are already being used as cudgels in the culture wars. Religious conservatives have questioned the use of abortion in Zika infection cases. And activists across the political spectrum have tried to tie Zika risk to issues ranging from illegal immigration to climate change.
While the political class is tripping over itself to fit Zika into stale old debates, a biotech company may have hit on a way to stop the virus in its tracks. In August, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) approved field trials of an anti-Zika strategy that goes after the source of transmission: mosquitoes.
Sponsored by Oxitec, the plan involves releasing male mosquitoes that have been genetically modified so that their offspring do not survive until adulthood. Since mosquitoes have an average life span of less than two months, introducing enough of the altered mosquitoes should lead to a massive mosquito die-off in affected areas. Previous field tests in places like Panama and the Cayman Islands have reduced the local population of Zika-carrying mosquitoes by more than 90 percent.
If you’re like me, the main downside of this plan is that it doesn’t kill off all mosquitoes, only the specific types that carry the virus. Also it would be better if the mosquitoes suffered a bit more for their crimes against humanity, but you can’t have everything.
Oxitec appears to have gone out of its way to safeguard the project against any legitimate objections. The release narrowly targets the Aedes aegypti, which is the type of mosquito that spreads Zika, as well as such other diseases as dengue fever. As the name suggests, Aedes aegypti is not native to North America, so we don’t need to worry that eliminating it will throw some delicately balanced and evolved ecosystem into chaos. Since only female mosquitoes bite, there’s no risk that releasing males is going to spread disease or even make going outside more unpleasant even in the short term.
The modified mosquitoes also have been altered to have a biological florescent marker, allowing them to be tracked after release. Mosquitoes’ short life spans allow scientists to test the effects from the genetic alternation over many generations, providing compelling evidence that the alterations are genetically stable.
The proposed release in Florida still needs to be approved by a local mosquito-control board, which plans to make a decision this fall. Early surveys indicate local residents are overwhelmingly supportive of the idea. But there is a vocal minority in opposition, motivated mainly by fears that if something involves genetically modified organisms (GMOs), it must be bad.
In general, opposition to GMOs tends to be fairly silly, involving an equal mix of conspiracy theories and quack medicine. When it comes to GMO food, for example, critics dismiss the scientific consensus that genetically modified crops are “safe to eat and safe for the environment” with a mixture of conspiracy theories and quack science.
But opposition to genetically modified mosquitoes on grounds they are “unnatural” is particularly galling in this case. Alternative mosquito-control measures involve things like spraying chemical insecticides. These methods are expensive, often less than fully effective and the chemicals aren’t exactly good for humans or other animals either. Zika itself is proof that something can be quite natural and not be good for you.
The good news is that while critics of these technologies are loud, most Americans recognize the benefits that GMOs can bring. In addition, most Americans really hate mosquitoes. I’m confident the technology will be given a chance to work, if not in Florida, then elsewhere. My only hope is that bureaucratic and activist pressure doesn’t delay matters until Zika becomes a real crisis