Zika Virus and Genetic Engineering: Why It Matters

While the Zika virus has been around since its discovery in 1947, we’ve seen an unexplained spike in both prevalence and virulence over the past six months that baffles even our national and global health experts.

Why the spike? As a science fiction author I’ve formed my own piecemeal theory…but here’s where I run into trouble, because my work exists at the intersection of fact and fiction, where real-life research gives rise to disturbing imaginative mayhem. Although I have a bachelor of science in biology and completed a year’s worth of classes toward a master’s degree in public health (including courses in epidemiology and infectious pathogens), I won’t attempt a straightforward answer. Instead, I’ll defer to my current occupation: making stuff up.

Flash fiction draft: A long time ago, in a galaxy (not very) far far away…military scientists captured and experimented on a bunch of flying miniature vampire-insects. The scientists also found a relatively mild virus in their stomach—a virus known to afflict an impoverished foreign culture—and altered its genetic code. Meanwhile, from within a darkened lab, those traumatized flying miniature mutant vampire-insects plotted their revenge.

That’s a horrifying scenario, right? Good thing it’s fiction (if you’re interested in research that inspired this quirky piece, see the end of this post).

article-2381433-19B35E7D000005DC-276_634x470Flash fiction aside, I think we can all agree that real-life genetic engineering of any kind could have far-reaching unforeseen consequences. The late Michael Crichton, a best-selling author and screenwriter, spoke often to national audiences (including Congress) about environmentalism, the decline of conventional media, a case for skepticism on global warming, and yes…the legal and moral implications of genetic research. After all, it was Crichton who penned that iconic story about a theme park owner who—seeing dollar signs—genetically engineered DNA strands isolated from blood found inside an amber-trapped, prehistoric mosquito.

By the way, the mosquito is a fascinating little creature—a vector for some of the world’s most devastating diseases: malaria, yellow fever, West Nile, dengue, and the Zika virus. We might never understand why Zika is worse now than before, but regardless, Zika cases continue to rise and the small-but-mighty mosquito is the main form of transmission.

What’s the solution? Historically the chemical DDT has been our most effective weapon against diseases carried by mosquitoes, especially malaria. Unfortunat860-header-zika-9256ely, because of controversial and politicized environmental research, DDT has been banned in the United States since the early seventies.

In 2006, about a year before the first large outbreak of the Zika virus, Crichton had some strong words about malaria and DDT that might resonate with us today, in our “sudden” global fight against Zika and the mosquito that harbors it.

“We don’t have malaria in the United States…so we don’t care. We can ban DDT and use something else on our crops. The fact that people of color, the fact that people in Asia or in Africa, they’re the ones who are dying—I’m sorry, but a lot of people in this country just don’t care, and I think that’s really wrong.” Michael Crichton on DDT (CSPAN, 2006).

Maybe it’s tragically past time for Americans to care about people beyond our borders. And while we’re at it, perhaps we should get serious about unethical overseas genetic engineering before we create a monster we can’t control…if we haven’t already.

 

 

REFERENCES:

  1. Pitt researchers using grant to find cures for viruses from mosquitoes (by Ben Schmitt, Trib Total Media; July 2015): “During the Cold War, the United States and the Soviet Union developed a mosquito-borne virus into a biological weapon that was never used, Klimstra said.”
  2. A magic sword or a big itch: An historical look at the United States biological weapons programme (Medicine, Conflict and Survival; 1999): “In the late 1950s interest in entomological warfare increased, and literature describing the US biological warfare programmes on the use of the mosquito Aedes aegypti, the vector for transmitting yellow fever, has now been released.” 
  3. Humans are genetically modifying mosquitoes to fight a disease we helped create (by Gwynn Guilford, Quartz; May 2015): “The trial in Key West could also shape precedents for the use of GM technology more generally, and for tailoring public-health strategies to the deepening complexity of the modern world.”
  4. Raised on science and family legend, he saw the Zika crisis coming (by Dylan Scott, Stat News; February 22, 2016): “For most of the world, the Zika virus materialized out of thin air to become an international public health crisis. Andrew Haddow had been preparing for it his whole life.”

11 thoughts on “Zika Virus and Genetic Engineering: Why It Matters

  1. Maybe if we built headquarters for the American environmental groups in Africa next to mosquito infested ponds, then DDT might be allowed back on the scene. Until then, it will be same-o, same-o.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. But Crichton was wrong on the history, wrong on the chemistry of DDT, and wrong on the biology of mosquitoes and pesticides. Fight Zika, not science, please.

    See: https://timpanogos.wordpress.com/2007/10/28/michael-crichton-hysterical-for-ddt/

    And: https://timpanogos.wordpress.com/2008/11/24/good-interred-with-their-bones-dept-michael-crichton/

    DDT can’t save us from Zika. Let’s face reality, and take real, effective action.

    Thank you.

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    1. Hi Ed! I’m a writer with a science background, not a researcher or chemist, so I’m not qualified to say what will work best for Zika, whether DDT, Deet, GMO, or some other method. I do think the public health community as a whole can’t afford to rule anything out at this point. In your opinion, what’s the most effective way to fight the Zika virus?

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      1. I trust the public health community not to be stupid.

        For 50 years public health workers have struggled to find a cheap, easy treatment for Aedes aegypti mosquitoes, since they also carry Yellow Fever and chikungunya.

        If DDT worked, don’t you think they’d use it?

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        1. They do still use DDT, under high regulation, in very limited quantities in regions worst hit by malaria. Why? Because it works. Would it work against Zika-carrying mosquitos? Some research says yes, some says no. There are many unanswered questions about this particular public health crisis, and nothing about has behaved as expected.

          Liked by 1 person

    2. I’d also like to add that–for the record–I’m not in favor of DDT. Nor do I think we should unleash a bunch of genetically-modified organisms (GMO) as weapons against Zika. When I was an undergrad, genetic research was exploding, the Human Genome Project was well underway, and concerned bioethicists everywhere (including myself) agreed with Crichton about the possible butterfly effect of even the smallest man-made genetic alterations, much in the same way environmentalists of the 60s and 70s feared pesticides.

      Real, effective action against Zika might require accepting the lesser of our man-made evils, whatever that may be. The difficult part, for all of us, is that we cannot predict future consequences.

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      1. Biggest argument against DDT use against Zika virus-carrying mosquitoes is it doesn’t work. Effective action is required, yes — but in this case dengue fever, carried by the same mosquitoes, is a bigger problem than Zika on every measure.

        Every product we find in the produce section of our supermarkets is the result of hybridization, or GMO by the slow process. We do know of harms — too much sugar creates Type II diabetics, for example.

        There is no GMO cure for Zika proposed, really. Quick diagnosis, symptomatic treatment, better housing with screens in windows, air conditioning to stop mosquitoes getting into houses, insect repellents like DEET, draining water from breeding areas around homes — and I mean flower pots, tin cans, tires, rain gutters and potholes in roads — long sleeves. Those are the tools we have, and they work.

        DDT never was magic, and now that it doesn’t work well to kill mosquitoes, it’s not even sleight-of-hand.

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        1. I agree there is not a magic cure. I hope that through dialogue among big-picture people like us, and research in the scientific community, we as a global society can find adequate prevention and treatment for Zika in the near future. Thank you for commenting, Ed!

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  3. Yes, there are side effects for DDT, but there are also heavy side effects for quinine, too. Yet, I’m guessing if you suffer from malaria, you would be willing to take quinine – even though there are side effects for the product. Banning DDT was one of the worst moves ever made by enviornmental and health organizations, especially in 3rd World nations.

    Who knows? Maybe the Zika virus is just America and other nations reaping what they sowed.

    Like

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