World Mosquito Day fell this past Sunday, providing an opportunity to highlight biotechnology’s contributions to fighting mosquito-borne disease across the world. BIO President and CEO Jim Greenwood penned an op-ed in The Hill on the “friendly mosquito,” a biotech solution to life-threatening diseases like Zika. The full story can be found below.
Monday marks the one-year anniversary of the closing ceremonies of the 2016 Summer Olympics in Rio de Janeiro, an event history may remember as much for widespread Zika panic as who won which medals.
The U.S. media glare has long since moved on from spotlighting the risks the mosquito-borne Zika virus poses to pregnant women and the thousands of babies being born with shrunken heads (microencephaly) and other congenital birth defects.
Unfortunately, in this instance, our collective attention span is shorter than the length of the global public health emergency declared by the World Health Organization that remains in effect today.
Just because Zika is “yesterday’s news” doesn’t mean it’s not still today’s problem — not just in Brazil, but here in the United States.
Last year alone, more than 40,000 cases of Zika were reported in the United States and U.S. territories, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). Those figures invariably represent a significant undercount since most people with the virus don’t realize they have it. Even more concerning is laboratory evidence that more than 2,000 pregnant U.S. women have been exposed to Zika through June 2017.
Ninety-five percent of the cases reported in the continental United States were acquired by travelers returning from affected countries, underscoring that fighting the global pandemic is a legitimate domestic public health issue.
Globally, more than two billion people live in areas where the environment is suitable for Zika transmission. To date, Brazil has been the country hardest hit, with as many as 1.5 million local residents currently infectedand 1,800 babies diagnosed with microcephaly. This number doesn’t include countless babies born with normal-size heads but significant vision, hearing and developmental problems due to Zika.
World Mosquito Day is this Sunday. It was originally conceived as a commemoration of Sir Ronald Ross’s 1897 discovery that female mosquitos transmit malaria between humans. Now, we’ve come to learn that the mosquito — and one invasive species, in particular, called Aedes aegypti — infects human victims with Zika, yellow fever, dengue fever, and chikungunya. While Aedes aegypti originated in North Africa, it is now present in more than 100 countries and still expanding its range.
Researchers are hard at work on a promising vaccine, but the breakthrough could still be several years away. World Health Organization experts have noted that in the fight against diseases like Zika, controlling the mosquito population is critical. Millions of dollars have been spent funding programs seeking to improve methods of mosquito control. Even with the best available methods like insecticide spraying, invasive mosquito populations can only be reduced by 30 to 50 percent. That’s not enough to prevent the spread of the disease. Other options like reversing the DDT ban could help but would have detrimental impacts on wildlife and the environment.
Thankfully, biotechnology has created an elegant solution: using the mosquitos against themselves. Oxitec, a British-based biotech company, genetically engineers mosquitos to pass on a self-limiting gene, killing mosquito offspring before they reach adulthood and stopping the virus at its source. By utilizing biotechnology rather than insecticides, Oxitec’s methods have far less environmental impact.
In trials, their approach has reduced mosquito populations by 90 percent or more, well below the threshold for epidemic disease transmission. Oxitec calls its triumph of Zika-fighting genetic engineering the “friendly” Aedes aegypti mosquito.
I’ve personally seen how well this biotech intervention works in alleviating the spread of mosquito-borne illnesses. Last summer, after the Olympics, I traveled to Piracicaba, Brazil, seven hours west of Rio. I was driven around in a van releasing “friendly” male mosquitoes into areas where Zika and dengue fever were putting local residents at risk. These modified, friendly insects would mate with wild females –which bite and therefore can spread disease — and essentially breed out the invasive Aedes aegypti. The results of this innovative breeding strategy speak for themselves: Pilot projects in two Piracicaba municipalities decreased annual cases of dengue fever from 133 to just one.
However, in Brazil and other countries, government officials still need to be persuaded to approve Oxitec’s technology as part of their national emergency public health response. Unfortunately, anti-GMO groups who oppose anything that has been genetically modified have targeted the breakthrough technology. Activists protested the release of these Oxitec mosquitos after a Zika outbreak in Florida based on their unfounded distrust of anything GMO.
Other activist groups worry about what decreasing mosquito populations would mean for local food chains, but scientists who’ve studied the issue said those impacts would be minimal.
Biotechnology represents a remarkable triumph of human ingenuity. It involves harnessing our greatest scientific discoveries and achievements to alleviate suffering, prevent disease, protect the environment and feed the hungry. Biotechnology products have undergone rigorous study and been proven, time and again, to be safe and effective.
When did we stop trusting science in this country? We need more Americans to speak up and speak out against activists and government officials whose fear of science outweighs their fear of deadly viruses like Zika. Otherwise, the welfare of newborn babies will be the latest casualty of the anti-science movement.