Genetically modified mosquitoes can fight spread of the Zika virus

Protestor in Key West demonstrates against using genetically modified mosquitoes to control the spread of the Zika virus.
Protestor in Key West demonstrates against using genetically modified mosquitoes to control the spread of the Zika virus. AP

On a recent Tuesday afternoon, protesters gathered at the Florida Keys Mosquito Control Board to oppose a potential solution to Florida’s Zika outbreak. While an overwhelming 79 percent of Americans support government-funded efforts to kill the mosquitoes responsible for spreading Zika, this small but vocal minority has taken issue with the proposed solution: genetic modification.

The federally approved plan involves releasing bio-engineered, infertile male mosquitoes to control Florida’s population. When GM males mate with wild females, their offspring die before reaching adulthood.

If the idea of releasing more mosquitoes makes your skin crawl, don’t worry: Male mosquitoes, and not just the lab-born variety, are physically incapable of biting people.

Trials in Brazil, Panama, Malaysia and the Cayman Islands have been wildly successful, reducing local mosquito populations by over 90 percent.

The idea that genetically engineered organisms can turn the tide of a public health crisis certainly isn’t a new one. Modified bacteria have been the primary source of medical-grade human insulin for decades.

Recent developments have allowed scientists to pursue cancer and HIV treatments from modified micro-organisms.

Although not an “organism” per se, scientists manipulate each year’s most prominent strain of flu virus to create its vaccine, saving an estimated 40,000 Americans over a ten-year period. The Zika vaccine, which is still being tested, takes advantage of genetic modification in our own skin.

But unfortunately for Floridians (and the rest of the country), “GMO” has become the buzzword du jour for opponents of biotechnology.

Activists claim not enough research has been performed, even though over 2000 independent studies have found that genetic modification poses no risk to humans.

International regulatory bodies like the World Health Organization, European Food Safety Authority and even the United States’ own Food and Drug Administration have awarded genetically modified foods currently on the market with their stamp of approval.

Yet according to a Pew Research study, only 37 percent of U.S. adults believe it is safe to eat genetically modified food, compared to almost 90 percent of board certified scientists.

A blanket rejection of anything genetically engineered impedes not only the domestic response to Zika, but also the effort to address global health.

The United Nations estimates that 1 in 9 people suffer from chronic undernourishment, and vitamin A deficiency reigns as the leading cause of preventable childhood blindness.

Yet at the turn of the century, Greenpeace lead the assault against modified “golden rice,” which was developed as a purely humanitarian project to address this very issue.

The rice was engineered to produce beta-carotene, the precursor to vitamin A, which is normally found only in the plant’s green leaves. As recently as this summer over 100 Nobel laureates urged Greenpeace to cease its continued efforts to prevent the introduction of golden rice to impoverished communities worldwide.

In truth, humans have been manipulating genes before we even had a name for them.

Yet to those willfully ignorant of science, the imagined threats of GMOs supersede the very real, irreversible threats which Zika virus presents to fetal development.

With over 300 lab-confirmed Zika infections in Florida alone and a vaccine yet to be approved for public distribution, we are clearly in need of an immediate solution.

Genetic modification has been responsible for countless medical advancements of the 21st century. As humanity rests on the crux of what could be yet another pandemic, it is absolutely essential that we permit scientists use every available tool to combat the spread of Zika.

Joseph Perrone is the chief science officer at the Center for Accountability in Science.