When the Zika epidemic became the latest global health emergency, comparisons to the recent Ebola crisis sprang to my mind.
On one hand, Zika is quite distinct from Ebola. Zika has already been identified in more places; Zika is mosquito-borne, not zoonotic; and social anxiety around Zika has to do with pregnancy and birth, rather than death and funerals. On the other hand, Zika and Ebola are similar. In particular, both have been enveloped in hype and speculation. Northern media headlines early in the Ebola epidemic played on thinly-veiled racial fears. Recent Zika headlines invoke latent gendered and reproductive anxieties. And, as in the Ebola case, much of the hype and speculation surrounding Zika has been financial and pharmaceutical.
While it is true that vaccines or drugs for Zika remain a long way off, there are other investment-ready technical solutions in the pipeline. The best known of these is probably the genetically sterilized Aedes Aegypti mosquito originally designed as a dengue fever intervention by the British company Oxitec.* In the wake of Zika, The Ecologist published a claim that Oxitec’s GM mosquitoes, which have been released in some parts of Brazil, might be triggering the link between Zika and microcephaly. This claim was contradicted (correctly, in my opinion) by Discover.
At one level, such rumor mongering and rumor-squashing is familiar in the GMO world. Even before Zika, there was plenty of talk of corporate conspiracy regarding Oxitec, especially after it released its first batch of GM Ae. Aegypti in 2009 with little publicity or oversight. Oxitec’s subsequent GM mosquito releases, however, have been well publicized. The company’s press releases claim that releases in the Cayman Islands, Panama, and Brazil have lowered mosquito populations by as much as 80%.
But the hype continues.
Last week, an online report in the notably Oxitec-friendly New Yorker implied that the company’s GM mosquito releases are correlated with reduced levels of dengue infection.
This claim is doubtful. Identifying a strong connection between GM releases and lowered rates of infections would take quite a bit of long-term, large-scale testing. To my knowledge, Oxitec has never publicly asserted that its releases have lowered dengue caseloads, even if the company’s spokespeople don’t rush to deny such assertions when other people make them.
GMOs may eventually help stop dengue and Zika, but they are not a quick fix—at least not for public health. What is true is that there is big money in GM mosquito technology, right now, for savvy financial speculators. The stock price of Intrexon, Oxitec’s parent company, jumped by 15% on February 4, and by 10% a week before.
Zika may be bad for Caribbean tourism and the Brazilian Olympic Committee, but rising case numbers could be good for Wall Streeters who have the tools and skills to navigate the volatile biotech sector. At one point on January 28, Intrexon stock was up by 24%. (SELL!)
After that, the investment blog Motley Fool sounded a note of caution:
“It’s important to keep in mind that epidemic threats don’t always turn into profits for drug developers. Actions put in place by global regulatory agencies sometimes stop the spread of a disease in its tracks. Look at Ebola, which more or less wound up being snuffed out before a vaccination was developed.”
Straightfaced statements like this one reveal a basic contradiction in the public-private model that has come to dominate global health research. In a “Grand Challenge,” the Gates Foundation has given millions to public-private GM mosquito research firms, including Oxitec, which is a spinoff of Oxford University. Despite appeals by Gates and others to the innovative potential of such partnerships, much of the money to be made in global health may actually come from speculating on morbidity and mortality, rather than creating long-term public health results.
Here, the points made by Hannah Lesshafft and Lucy Lowe in their contributions to this forum bear repeating. Low-tech tricks do work against mosquito-borne diseases: quality housing (especially screens and ventilation), safe running water, garbage service, roads, sewers, reliable primary care (including care), and access to birth control. Let’s hope someone decides to lay some bets on those.
* For discussion of Oxitec in anthropology and STS, see:
Beisel, U. and Boëte, C. (2013). The Flying Public Health Tool: Genetically Modified Mosquitoes and Malaria Control. Science as Culture 22(1): 38-60.
Lezaun, Javier and Natalie Porter. (2015). Containment and competition: transgenic animals in the One Health agenda. Social Science and Medicine 129: 96-105.
Nading, A. (2015a). The Lively Ethics of Global Health GMOs: The Case of the Oxitec Mosquito. BioSocieties 10: 24-47.
Reis Castro, L. (2012). Genetically modified insects as a public health tool: discussing the different bio-objectification within genetic strategies. Croatian Medical Journal 53: 635-8.
Alex Nading is a medical and ecological anthropologist who has researched issues surrounding dengue fever in Central America.