It’s worse than we had feared.
That’s what public-health officials confessed this week about the Zika virus.
“Everything we look at with this virus seems to be a bit scarier than we initially thought,” warned Anne Schuchat of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, according to USA Today.
“I’m not an alarmist,” added Anthony Fauci, head of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases. “But the more we learn about the neurological aspect [of Zika], the more we look around and say this is very serious.”
There may be a solution: the complete eradication of the type of mosquito that spreads Zika, using the same methods that have advanced medical science and improved crop technology around the world.
I’m all for it. Let’s get rid of these deadly bugs for good.
Scientists are still studying Zika, which takes its name from the forest in Uganda where researchers first detected it in monkeys in 1947. Six decades later, only 14 cases in humans ever had been documented. There must have been more, but they went unreported.
In the last few years, however, the mosquito-borne virus appears to have gone from epidemiological curiosity to public-health hazard. The first outbreak in the Western hemisphere hit a year ago in Brazil. In January, the World Health Organization predicted that Zika will spread to every country in the Americas except Canada and Chile.
More than 300 Americans have contracted Zika, though they’ve gotten it while traveling. As of right now, according to the CDC, nobody has acquired the virus from a mosquito bite within the borders of the United States.
Yet it’s only a matter of time. Zika is already present in Puerto Rico. Before long, we’ll see cases in Florida—the place I call home.
Scientists have linked Zika to birth defects, such as babies born with small brains. This affliction is known as “microcephaly”—a clinical term that hardly captures the horror of the reality.
Although people can catch the virus through sex, the main source is a genus of mosquito known as Aedes, which also spreads yellow fever and dengue fever.
Some of the best protection is common sense: Wear clothes that cover the skin, apply insect repellent, and take advantage of physical barriers such as screens and netting.
Ultimately, however, these measures merely manage a problem. The same goes for vaccines. They’re worth developing, but they’re defensive.
We should go on offense. Instead of figuring out how to live with Zika, we should defeat it.
The Food and Drug Administration has granted tentative approval to a creative plan to release genetically modified male mosquitoes in the Florida Keys. They would mate with females, but their offspring would not survive.
It may sound like a wild idea from science fiction, but we’ve tried this approach before. In the 1950s, the entomologist Edward F. Knipling—a 1992 World Food Prize Laureate who I came to know personally when serving on USDA panels—pioneered the sterilization of screwworms to break the life-cycle of these insects. Screwworms, which preyed on warm-blooded animals like cattle, were devastating the domestic cattle livestock industry, creating significant losses in America’s meat and dairy supply. The first tests occurred in Florida. Within a few decades, screwworms were gone and a major threat to the world’s food supply was suppressed, in what the New York Times recently dubbed “perhaps the greatest insect-control story” ever told.
Today, we can use modern gene-editing innovation to attack bugs that already have caused unthinkable suffering—and which threaten to inflict even more.
A great benefit of this strategy is precision. Spraying swamps and wetlands with insecticides can work, but this carpet-bombing tactic also fails to discriminate between targeted pests and other insects, such as the many types of mosquitoes that never bite people.
We live in a world of amazing scientific potential. We’re using biotechnology to develop new medicines and grow the best crops in history.
Now let’s use it to wipe out what may be the greatest emerging public-health problem of our time.
Last week, the FDA extended the public-comment period on the mosquito-eradication proposal to May 13. The naysayers are starting to speak up. We should tell them to buzz off—and get behind the idea of applying our best scientific know-how to beat the menace of Zika.
As a wise man once said, the only thing we have to fear is fear itself.