Spread of GM mosquito conspiracy theory hurts fight against Zika

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Amidst all the fear surrounding the Zika virus outbreak, there is an egregious bit of misinformation being circulated that the outbreak could somehow be the result of genetically modified mosquitoes that were being tested to control mosquito populations.

According to a report in Business Insider which was the first to refute the story, the theory of seems to have originated on the social media site Reddit (under the subcategory ‘conspiracy’). Subsequently, an article titled “GMO mosquitoes could be cause of Zika outbreak, critics say,” appeared on the website of Russia Today (a government funded news network that is known to promote conspiracy theories). A day later, the UK tabloid Daily Mail published a similar piece with the title “Are scientists to blame for Zika virus? Researchers released genetically modified mosquitos into Brazil three years ago.” Worryingly, more articles are appearing on smaller news outlets and being shared on other social media sites as well.

The idea carries no scientific weight or credibility, and such news reports also highlight the same kind of poor reporting that undermined legitimate communication efforts during the Ebola outbreak last year, threatening to move focus away from what is important — making sure that people receive the most up to date and accurate information possible.

Oxitec, the company behind the trials, are attempting to reduce the population of the Aedes aegypti mosquitoes which are the major vectors for carrying mosquito borne diseases like dengue, chikungunya and Zika by creating genetically engineering sterile males. The trials that have been conducted in the past few years have proved so successful that the city of Piracicaba recently entered into an agreement with Oxitec to expand its efforts and build a larger facility. (See this GLP article from last week for a detailed look at how the mosquito works).

You don’t have to look too far beneath the surface to see that the recent claims of modified mosquitoes causing Zika have no merits. There is no evidence presented and the chief ‘critical’ quote is taken from a 2012 comment made by Helen Wallace, head of the anti-GMO group GeneWatch in response Oxitec’s mosquito trials conducted that year. For a thorough debunking of the claims in the Zika conspiracy theory, see this blog by The Mad Virologist which breaks down several conspiracies surrounding the Zika outbreak (Update: Christie Wilcox at Discover Magazine similar thoughts on the conspiracy and media reporting of it). Lydia Ramsey of Business Insider also makes several pertinent points as to why no one should believe the conspiracy. And when she actually interviewed an expert, this is what he said:

When we chatted with Alex Perkins, a Notre Dame biological sciences professor, about the Zika mosquito conspiracy, he told us nothing could be farther from the truth.

In fact, “It could very well be the case that genetically modified mosquitos could end up being one of the most important tools that we have to combat Zika,” Perkins said. “If anything, we should potentially be looking into using these more.”

The world will always have conspiracy theorists. But my ire in this case, is not directed at them. Instead it is more at reporters and editors who think it is appropriate to publish unfounded claims with no supporting information whatsoever. The Daily Mail is not known for its quality of reporting but it is a newspaper with a very large readership, both in print and online. Mail Online, the website of the Daily Mail has over 11.4 million daily visitors, and by all measures Russia Today is widely viewed as well, given that the article has been shared close to 15,000 times on Facebook. Achieving such a large reader base comes a degree of responsibility which increases greatly during a time of crisis, when the need for information is extremely high. Giving conspiracy theories a platform legitimizes them, creating fear and panic which is the last thing that is needed in a crisis.

The 2014 Ebola outbreak was a watershed moment for health reporting that we can look back to see how misinformation changed the outlook of the epidemic. Social media in retrospect had made things better and worse — better in that it easier to get the right word out about what people can and should do in a health emergency, but worse in that it is harder to control the spread of misinformation. As Victor Luckerson wrote in TIME during the Ebola crisis:

Trying to stem the spread of bad information online actually shares many similarities with containing a real-world virus. Infected Internet users, who may have picked up bogus info from an inaccurate media report, another person on social media or word-of-mouth, proceed to “infect” others with each false tweet or Facebook post.

….

Moments of crisis, when there’s a vacuum of accurate information, only exacerbate this. “Fear has a role,” says Emilio Ferrara, a postdoctoral fellow at Indiana University’s Center for Complex Networks and Systems Research. “If I read something that leverages my fears, my judgement would be obfuscated, and I could be more prone to spread facts that are obviously wrong under the pressure of these feelings.”

He also quoted the role of the CDC in making accurate information available, saying “Quick, accurate information disseminated as widely as possible, experts say, is the only way to combat the spread of falsities.”

We are fighting a pandemic that has health officials around the world scrambling for solutions. And we are doing so with a very limited set of tools. The Oxitec mosquitoes has proved to be safe and successful on a small scale and it will be many more years of testing and field trials before we will know whether it can be used safely and efficiently on a large scale. However, spreading misinformation about its use only serves to promote fear and could potentially delay its course — a dangerous outcome, given that this is unlikely to be the last mosquito borne epidemic we will see.

In a recent panel discussion conducted by the DC Science Writers Association about reporting during the Ebola crisis, Joel Achenbach, a reporter for the Washington Post talked about the responsibility of the journalists, saying, “our challenge at the Post was to be a good filter of the news so that we would not feed the hysteria.” We are yet again faced with a similar situation ripe for the spread of hysteria. Let’s hope we do better this time.

Arvind Suresh is a science media liaison at the Genetic Expert News Service. He is also a science communicator and a former laboratory biologist. Follow him @suresh_arvind.

  • It should be obvious that appeals to authority will not carry much weight with conspiracy theorizers. The authorities are supposed to be part of the problem. People believe, correctly I think, that many of the authorities are influenced by a desire for professional advancement or monetary profit. Furthermore, there have been a number of news stories in recent years about the use of poor people in poor countries for various kinds of biological experimentation. These stories may be inaccurate — science reporting usually is — but they are probably not entirely false.

    • 1dlbeall

      Boko Haram has been testing bullets on people to see if it kills them, no one seem to care about that?

      • On the contrary, there is lots of excitement about it. But what is your point, if any?

  • mem_somerville

    As I keep saying, the problem isn’t that scientists aren’t good communicators. They’ve been explaining how these mosquitoes work. They’ve had public outreach campaigns in Brazil. There’s publications to read on the research.

    The problem we keep having is that toxic misinformers get platforms. And that poisons everything.

  • RebelSoldier

    Are they going to carpet bomb every natural ecosystem in which these mosquitoes live? All Amazonia, Central America and the Everglades and every bayou in the South. Everything we do carries a cost. What is the cost in natural diversity of carpet bombing with pesticides to exterminate a creature embedded in the ecosystem like mosquitoes. Maybe near cities but there may be a thousand species from unknown invertebrates to amphibians we are desperately trying to save that will be negatively effected by pesticide showered at will on the environment. Every solution and every new invention needs to be looked at in its effects down seven generations in front of us. We need to slow down our wild tampering with nature intentionally or otherwise.

    • agscienceliterate

      Tell that to the mom with a kid disabled from Zika.

    • Dominick Dickerson

      Okay, so if you decry the use of pesticides and want to keep natural ecosystems intact then you support oxitecs gm solution right, since it only targets a single invasive species of mosquito and not all insects like the alternatives?

  • fairpricetickets

    http://theantimedia.org/zika-outbreak-epicenter-in-same-area-where-gm-mosquitoes-were-released-in-2015/

    This article specifically links the outbreak to tetracycline being present in Brazil. The mosquitoes are genetically engineered to die WITHOUT tetracycline.

    It seems that the argument my article is making is that the scientists did not predict that there would be tetracycline in present in the real world when in fact this is not the case.

    While I’m not completely sold, I’d like to hear a good argument that refutes the article I provided. The author of the current article just dismisses every other claim without actually providing a justification.

    • Bixbyte

      That is an interesting link at theantimedia.org. Does the author have any credentials? Because if it is true that GM Mosquitoes are the direct cause of an outbreak of Zika we should be prepared for a possible pandemic in the foreseeable. But, if the author of this article Arvin Suresh is correct then we have even more to worry about. I do not see a winning situation? If they are altered and fed on tetracycline then we are in deep trouble. And if the mosquitoes are not genetically altered and there is a sudden epidemic then there is no cure.

      • Dominick Dickerson

        As far as I can tell the author of the AntiMedia piece has no credentials in so far as biotechnology, virology, or biology. she sourced the main thrust of her piece from an anonymous redditor posts in /r/conspiracy .

        Dr. Christie Wilcox over at discoverblogs did a great job exploring this issue. I’ld definetely check out her piece.
        http://blogs.discovermagazine.com/science-sushi/2016/01/31/genetically-modified-mosquitoes-didnt-start-zika-ourbreak/#.VrBFAq88KrX

        • Bixbyte

          I read the discovery blog and there is a problem:
          This study was funded by Oxitec’s core investment.
          “I have read the journal’s policy and the authors of this manuscript have the following competing interests: those authors affiliated to Oxitec Ltd (as noted in the author list) are or were employees or sponsored students of the company, which therefore provided salary and other support for the research programme. Also, all these employees have shares or share options in Oxitec Ltd. “

          • JP

            And that proves it’s incorrect… how, exactly?

          • Bixbyte

            The Scientists were funded with stock options from Oxitec the company that wrote the study.
            I identify that as conflict of interest and throw out the evidence.

          • JP

            That seems… harsh.

      • Wackes Seppi

        “Because if it is true that GM Mosquitoes are the direct cause of an outbreak of Zika…”?

        Igf it’s true, you (or some conspiracy theorist) would have to provide a reasonable explanation for the previous outbreaks (in French Polynesia for instance).

        “…we should be prepared for a possible pandemic in the foreseeable”?

        Again, please provide a sensible explanation.

        • Bixbyte

          This study was funded by Oxitec’s core investment.
          Conflict of interest all over the study.

    • Deb

      No no no. They fed them chicken. Tetracycline is widly used for unfectiond

      • Deb

        Infections in chicken. So they messed up

    • First Officer

      The amount of tetracycline needed to prevent the mosquito from dying is roughly 1000X than is found in the wild.

      • fairpricetickets

        this is exactly the information I was looking for. Give me the source.

        • First Officer

          http://journals.plos.org/plosntds/article?id=10.1371/journal.pntd.0003999

          The li’l buggers don’t start responding until tetracycline concentrations are above 1ng/mL, and don’t really get going until about 10ng/mL.

          ” The concentration of each tetracycline tested; tetracycline, oxytetracycline and chlortetracycline, was below the limit of quantification for each of the field samples. The limit of detection was 1.0 pg mL-1 for tetracycline and chlortetracycline and 2.5 pg mL-1 for oxytetracycline.”

          • fairpricetickets

            Would be curious to see the concentrations in water sources near farms and other industries that use it in Brazil. I doubt the regulation for it’s use is widely enforced (if at all) in a corrupt nation like Brazil.

            It’s something that shouldn’t be entirely ruled out at this point even if it’s only a small possibility.

          • First Officer

            The study does mention that and took sample of water in such locations thought to be disposed to have high concentrations.

          • fairpricetickets

            good stuff, NUMBER ONE!

      • Bixbyte

        Not true the amount of antibiotics needed to sustain the life of the genetically altered mosquitoes is roughly .5 to 1.5 times the amount found in the Oxictec water study.
        And the study has conflict of interest written all over the place. Sorry, I need more evidence to determine which side is right.

        • First Officer

          Typical concentrations found were below the tedection limit of the equipment used, to wit, 1pg/mL. The mosquitoes don’t even starat to survive until above 1ng/mL and really need >= 10ng/mL for fairly reliable survival rates.

          http://journals.plos.org/plosntds/article?id=10.1371/journal.pntd.0003999

          • Bixbyte

            Yes, but the results of the study were done by employees with Stock Options. They made huge amounts of money if they reported what Oxitec wants to hear!
            ” Competing Interests”
            “I have read the journal’s policy and the authors of this manuscript have the following competing interests: those authors affiliated to Oxitec Ltd (as noted in the author list) are or were employees or sponsored students of the company, which therefore provided salary and other support for the research programme. Also, all these employees have shares or share options in Oxitec Ltd.”
            http://www.plosntds.org/article/authors/info%3Adoi%2F10.1371%2Fjournal.pntd.0003999

  • pschase

    I think it comes back to research doesn’t it? On one hand they say they don’t know why it’s doing what it does – but the one ironclad fact is that it has nothing to do with gmo mosquito’s? How would you know without proper research, without scientific process?
    A theory only exists to be proven wrong, right, or worthy of further exploration. People have questions and that seems completely understandable to me. Spring is coming.

  • Michael Eckford

    Good article!

  • artguerrilla

    1. thanks to some readers who express the skepticism merited (for BOTH (or more?) sides of the issue), and don’t necessarily fall for the first ‘official’ story…
    2. THIS article does NOTHING to debunk the countervailing theory, it ONLY points a finger and says OTHERS have debunked it, BUT I SEE NOTHING of the so-called debunking evidence itself, only some meaningless quotes of ‘oh, it can’t be that…’ okay, WHY can’t it ‘be that’ ? ? ?
    3. the ‘defenders’ referenced are people INVESTED (literally or by profession) in the use of this technology, WHAT ELSE are they going to say ? ? ?
    4. not to mention the usual smear-attack of ‘konspiracy, Konspiracy, KONSPIRACY! ! ! run for your lives ! ! !’… that IMMEDIATELY makes the author suspect to me…
    5. having read the original article, the author DOES NOT claim this is definitively the mechanism which took place, only posits it as a real possibility… further, they actually give evidence, numbers, and discuss viable methods for this to happen…
    6. lastly, the idea that a certain percentage of the ‘sterile’ mosquitoes survive and interbreed with ‘real’ mosquitoes goes down a rabbit hole NO ONE KNOWS where it ends… FURTHER, the transfer mechanism they describe is fraught with problematic unintended consequences WE HAVE NO CLUE ABOUT…
    7. stupid shit nekkid apes, think they have outwitted nature, when it turns around and bites them in the ass, EVERY FUCKING TIME…

    • agscienceliterate

      Sifting through your strange rant, I see one point worth responding to. Yes, companies are working hard to fight this deadly disease. It seems you have a problem with that. Opponents of Ebola treatment and AIDS research also made the same points you have, albeit more articulately. Many people died needlessly as a result.

      • artguerrilla

        1. thanks for nothing, much like the original article…
        2. my main point was (and is) this: the ‘article’ DOES NOTHING to debunk the koo koo kwazy konspiracy argument, IT JUST SAYS OTHERS HAVE DONE SO… WHAT did they actually say (other than the few USELESS pull quotes which essentially say ‘oh, that is koo koo kwazy konspiracy talk…’), WHAT are the issues with the koo koo kwazy theory ? ? ?
        well, we STILL don’t know after reading this…
        (AND after reading YOU, monsanto apologist bot you probably are)
        3. AFTER reading the original koo koo kwazy konspiracy article, i AT LEAST had some idea of the details of the issues involved, something THIS ‘article’ provides NOTHING of…
        4. ‘strange rant’ ? yes, it is strange these days for a sheeple to stand on their own hind legs and question the ‘wisdom’ of the powers that be…
        i can see you remain supine…
        5. lastly, you act as if the motivations of Big Pharma, Big Ag are just oh so totally benign, and they would nebber, ebber do anything remotely eee-vil, they is only interested in helping po’ po’ people, NOT extract as much money from them as they can…
        if you are a twue bewiever, grow the fuck up; if you are a shill-bot, FOAD…

        • agscienceliterate

          Art, my goodness. “Po’ PO’ people.” “Nebber, ebber…” “”twue beweiver”. … Your rant is very immature. No, I am not a Monsanto shill. This is not about Monsanto, by the way, if you would read the article and read about the companies working to address this deadly virus. When you can write like a grown-up, please come back and add some cogent points.

          • artguerrilla

            1. sorry you are unable to parse creative writing… it amuses me, more than can be said for your staid AND POINTLESS ‘writing’…
            (as an aside, were i to wish to, i could write right proper rings around a dullard such as yourself…)
            2. are you or are you not a GM proponent ? ? ? THAT alone earns you a sobriquet of monsanto shill-bot… because here is the thing: WE super-smart nekkid apes DO NOT know the implications of the science we are dabbling with in these areas…
            WE.
            SIMPLY.
            DO.
            NOT.
            ALL assertions to the contrary are blind BULLSHIT…
            3. ALL my points were cogent, but YOU chose to ignore them NOT for my quixotic writing style, but because YOU DO NOT WANT TO ENGAGE with them… your scolding about my style is mere chickenshit babbling to escape addressing the issue… YOU are the child here, dingleberry…
            4. if YOU can’t address THE ISSUES AT HAND because YOU denigrate someone as being beneath you, YOU are the problem, asswipe…
            5. here, allow us to take this privately.. (even though I LOVE showing up hypocritical dingleberries like yourself online for the sheeple to take note of) artguerrilla at windstream dot net…
            you will not engage, you are a coward and a wormtongue…

          • agscienceliterate

            You certainly have some strong opinions. Yes, I strongly support biotech agriculture. And that, my friend, is the end of our discussion.

          • DogLicksWindow

            Your points are cogent if you know so little about the topic that they make sense. You’re an idiot, go away.

  • AutismDadd

    AKA damage control

  • 0ivae

    I see far more intelligence among the commenters here (even where they disagree) than in the author, who is clearly a paid hack for the industry, throwing around the “conspiracy theory” label with more abandon than a Marco Rubio broken record.

    I suppose that James Clapper is now a “conspiracy theorist” as well… https://www.technologyreview.com/s/600774/top-us-intelligence-official-calls-gene-editing-a-wmd-threat/

    Clapper didn’t lay out any particular bioweapons scenarios, but
    scientists have previously speculated about whether CRISPR could be used to make “killer mosquitoes,”

    • gmoeater

      You have any evidence of this tired old “paid hack” (yawn) allegation? The desperate response of someone scraping the barrel. You buy into the conspiracy theory of GE mosquitoes causing Zika? Are you an anti-vaxxer, by the way? Of course you are.

  • lia

    Even if mosquitoes aren’t causing microencephaly, there are still many deadly diseases carried by mosquitoes. My father died of West Nile from a mosquito bite. He was one of the rare cases. Meningoencephalitis from West Nile. All it takes is one mosquito. I don’t like all the bad chemicals, especially for my children. But now you can wear natural mosquito spray that is as effective as DEET. http://amzn.to/1VFcuMa