We may all have different opinions on a lot of things, but one thing we can all agree on is that nobody likes mosquitos – the buzzy little pests ruin outdoor barbecues and other activities by showing up and snacking on everyone in attendance! Now, though, in many areas of the world these little pests can also bring dangerous diseases like dengue fever and Zika, to crash the party. Health and government officials around the world are scrambling to find a way to prevent or cure the growing spread of the Zika virus. Could the introduction of genetically modified mosquitos help to reduce the spread of the virus, or does it sound like this will just cause more problems than it solves?
What is Zika?
The Zika virus is not a new one, though this recent surge in cases is what has the WHO (World Health Organization) and the CDC (Centers for Disease Control) scrambling for cures or vaccines. The virus was first observed in Uganda in 1947, by researchers who were actually there to study Yellow Fever. Since then, it has popped up here and there, such as an outbreak in 2007 on a Pacific Island called Yap, and again in 2013-2014 on a variety of Polynesian islands.
In March of 2015, a surge of cases in Brazil and surrounding countries brought this disease to the attention of the WHO, CDC, and the world. Many health officials, concerned about the recent poorly handled Ebola incident in West Africa was handled, have called for a robust and immediate response to the spread of this virus.
Since the A. Aegypti mosquito, which ranges though most of North and South America, carries the disease, it is entirely possible that this virus could spread through most of the Western world.
Bring in the Frankenflies!
Mosquitos are annoying and hateful little things at the best of times, so the idea of genetically modifying them and then releasing them into the ecosystem is enough to send most people running for the hills. Before you frown on the notion, though, hear us out, and then see what you think.
What’s the Plan?
The plan, as far as genetically modified mosquitos are concerned, depends on what country you’re in. Right now, there are two different directions that this mosquito-based research is going. The first modifying the mosquitoes themselves, and the second is introducing a modified bacteria to the mosquito populations.
The first plan is actually close to being implemented in the Cayman Islands – On Grand Cayman; scientists want to release millions of genetically modified A. Aegypti mosquitos that are designed to breed with the current population. These GMO insects will live only 3-4 days, and their offspring will not survive past the larval stage.
The second plan involves introducing mosquitos infected with the Wolbachia bacterium into the population. This modified bacterium prevents the mosquitos from being able to transmit Zika or any other blood-transmitted viruses, meaning a mosquito could bite an infected person with no chance of transferring it to a non-infected individual.
Scientists in Brazil have already seen some success with using genetically modified mosquitos in their fight against other diseases like dengue fever. By introducing sterile males into the population that dies off quickly if not provided with a counter-agent as they are in the lab setting, researchers have reduced cases of Dengue fever over two years in their test neighborhood from 133 to just 1.
The GMO Fears
In recent years, genetically modified organisms have gotten a bad rap – people have introduced legislation to label or ban genetically modified foods, using genetic modification in animals raises both moral and ethical concerns, and then there’s always the argument for/against using genetic modification in people, for good or ill.
These concerns and fears may be why many people are apprehensive or afraid of the idea of introducing genetically modified mosquitoes into their environment, even if they could potentially stop the spread of the Zika virus.
Oxitec, the British company that has had such success with its genetically modified mosquitoes in Brazil, wants to test them out now in the United States, most specifically in Key West and other similar areas that create ideal breeding grounds for the A. Aegypti mosquito that is carrying Zika into the United States. While the FDA has approved the idea, most Florida residents either don’t think it will help, are directly opposed to the idea, or even think that GMO mosquitos caused the Zika virus in the first place!
GMO = Zika?
Of course, whenever there’s a viral outbreak or other global event, the Internet is a hotbed of conspiracy theorists and panicked individuals who get all of their information from the World Wide Web. There are a growing number of people who believe that Oxitec and their genetically modified mosquitos are the cause of the new Zika virus spread, or that they even created it for whatever nefarious purposes that the internet can come up with.
Let us quell those fears right now – the Zika virus is not a new virus, as we’ve stated before. The spread of the virus is not due to any manipulation, genetic or otherwise.
The reason it was not so widely spread before is the mosquito that carries it, the A. Aegypti that we’ve been talking about the entire time, is not native to South America. It’s an invasive species, and that has allowed it to both thrive and to carry viruses like dengue fever, yellow fever, and Zika that were not previously causing problems in those areas.
What Could Go Wrong?
So now that we’ve covered what isn’t going to happen and what hasn’t happened, the questions remains – what could happen? What could possibly go wrong with the introduction of genetically modified mosquitoes into the environment?
- Could these mosquitos mutate or adapt, allowing them to increase the local mosquito population rather than reducing it?
- Could bites from these frankenflies cause adverse effects in humans or animals?
- Will the introduction of these GMO insects actually have a positive effect on the spread of the Zika virus?
There are still many questions left to answer before we allow anyone to start letting those miniature monstrosities loose on our skies. If the answers to “What could go wrong?” is anything other than “Absolutely Nothing” it may be time to head back to the drawing board to come up with another plan.