Was Genetic Engineering a Factor in the Zika Outbreak?


Sometimes I think humans are the stupidest species on the planet. We are the only species that, solely for the sake of profit, endeavor to develop technologies that not only are completely unnecessary for our survival but have a potential risk factor of bringing about our own destruction. This has been going on for much of the last century, and we have amply demonstrated over the same time we will believe any lie told to us provided it comes from a “credible” source.

And one of those “credible” sources is “science.”

I normally am not a science writer, but for the past few days stories about genetically modified mosquitoes have been buzzing around the Internet with regard to Zika, the latest virus that seems to be threatening certain populations in lesser developed areas of the world. Depending upon which source you believe, such mosquitoes are either, a) the solution to the Zika outbreak, or, b) the cause of it.

Let’s examine theory “a” first. The idea that GM mosquitoes (GMM) might rescue the people of Brazil and other countries seems to stem from  a January 19 press release put out by Oxitech, a British company that describes itself as “a pioneer in controlling insects that spread disease and damage crops.”

The gist of the press release is that the company will be opening a “mosquito production facility” in the city of Piracicaba, Brazil, the function of which will be to produce “self-limiting mosquitoes whose offspring do not survive.” The male mosquitoes have been genetically altered in such a way that they are incapable, theoretically at any rate, of producing viable offspring. Thus, the GMM’s will be released into the wild, where they will mate with female Aedes aegypti mosquitoes, the main vector of the Zika virus, and henceforth they will dramatically reduce the mosquito population.

That’s the theory, at any rate. Fox News, NPR, CBS, The Guardian, Time, CNN and others all went with the story, all plugging the use of GMM’s and suggesting it might be useful in the fight against the Zika virus.

“There is no biological mechanism by which the Oxitec bug’s modified pieces of DNA can transfer into human DNA, or into other mammals and insects,” Ford Vox asserts confidently in an opinion piece at CNN.

In other words, it’s not only safe, it has the potential to help rid the world of a terrible disease. Vox, by the way, according to CNN, is a doctor.

Now let’s examine theory “b.” On January 25, an article got posted at Reddit with a link to an earlier Oxitec press release, dating back to July 2015. That earlier press release announced the release of GMMs in Brazil, this in the effort to fight dengue fever. Specifically, the mosquito-release took place in Juazeiro, in northeast Brazil, in virtually the same area where babies are now being born with microcephaly.

Map showing location of Juazeiro, Brazil


Map showing areas of Brazil where Zika has been reported

On January 29, alternative media outlets began to publish the story, and on January 30, RT came out with a piece as well, under the headline, GMO mosquitoes could be cause of Zika outbreak, critics say. The rather interesting thing about the RT report is that it contains a link to an article published in The Guardian back in 2012. That article includes some rather astounding information, so let’s take a look at it.

Under the headline, Can GM Mosquitoes Rid the World of a Major Killer?, the story was published in the Guardian on July 14, 2012. The “major killer” referred to is dengue fever. Like the other stories I’ve linked to above, i.e. those published in the past week or so, the 2012 piece mentions the work by Oxitec, including its efforts in Brazil and other countries. But now here’s the real eye-popper. It seems Oxitec, already at that time in 2012, was releasing mosquitoes into the air, and not just in Brazil, either:

The mosquitoes developed and raised here at the laboratories of Oxitec, a British biotech company based near Didcot, have already infiltrated wild populations in Brazil, Malaysia and the Cayman Islands, and will soon be unleashed in Panama and India. The company hopes that it will reduce populations of disease-carrying mosquitoes by 80% but public opposition to anything “genetically modified” remains a significant obstacle to the possibility of saving thousands of lives.

So in other words, if The Guardian article is correct, the release of genetically engineered mosquitoes in Brazil didn’t begin in 2015; it started at least as far back as 2012.

According to its website, Oxitec “was formed in 2002 as a spin out from the University of Oxford,” and hence the company’s name (in reality a shortened version of Oxford Insect Technologies). It’s aim is to pioneer “environmentally safe methods of insect control,” and to this end it has developed genetically modified versions not only of the Aedes aegypti mosquito, but also the Mediterranean fruit fly and the pink bollworm.

Last year, in August to be exact, Oxitec was purchased by Intrexon Corp. In an article published January 28, 2016, the Motley Fool financial site reported that shares of Intrexon had “surged as much as 24% during Thursday’s trading session as a direct result of the spreading Zika virus.” The article is headlined, “Intrexon Corporation Catches Zika Fever.”

The CEO of Intrexon is Randal J. Kirk, who describes himself as “a lifelong student of business,” while one of the company’s top-ranking executives is Sr. Vice President Nir Nimrodi, formerly employed by the biotech firm Life Technologies,  now a part of Thermo Fischer Scientific. Nimrodi, according to Reuters, previously served with the Israeli Ministry of Defense.

The 2012 article in the Guardian informs us also that the Oxitec mosquitoes–though deliberately engineered not to produce offspring–could in fact generate viable young if they somehow gained access to the antibiotic tetracycline. Or as the story puts it:

The altered males are fed tetracycline in the lab and then introduced into the wild where they mate with wild females. The offspring need tetracycline to develop but cannot find it and so die. Only males are introduced into the environment and in a few days both they and their offspring are dead.

But of course, ranchers and farmers have been feeding antibiotics to cattle for a good many years now, so what happens if, for instance, one of Oxitec’s mosquitoes should come into contact with domestic animals pumped full of tetracycline? The issue is in fact raised by a biotech industry critic quoted in the story:

Critics of Oxitec say that the company is rushing to commercialise its products to provide a return on investment, massaging research while leaving key questions unanswered. Dr Helen Wallace, the director of GeneWatch, says she has several problems with Oxitec’s findings from its trials. One major issue, she says, is the occurrence of the tetracycline – the antibiotic that the young mosquitoes need to survive – in livestock and meat. Theoretically, if a female mosquito, daughter to a modified one, bit meat or an animal that contained tetracycline, she could survive. Oxitec says that the chance of this happening is very slim and in its most recent trial in the Caymans, it did not find a single mosquito that had survived.

Wallace says: “It’s a very experimental approach which has not yet been successful and may cause more harm than good. They are pushing ahead to commercialise their approach so they can start paying back their investors.

“I would be happier if there were more experiments in controlled areas, caged areas and labs, before general release in the populated areas. For example, in an area where dengue fever is endemic there’s a possible danger to the public.”

Wallace believes that existing control methods could be just as effective as releasing genetically modified insects and points out there are other innovations on the horizon which could be even more successful.

Tetracycline, by the way, can also be produced by bacteria in soils, and thus can occur naturally in the environment.

Back in 2014, when Ebola was ravaging countries in West Africa, news surfaced on some alternative websites that the epidemic had been preceded by a period of time in which the US government and certain pharmaceutical corporations had conducted ebola tests on humans, presumably in the interest of developing a vaccine. This was the subject of an article at the time by Paul Craig Roberts, who discusses the findings of Francis Boyle, of the University of Illinois, and Dr. Cyril Broderick, of the University of Liberia.

“Reports narrate stories of the US Department of Defense (DoD) funding Ebola trials on humans, trials which started just weeks before the Ebola outbreak in Guinea and Sierra Leone,” said Broderick. “The reports continue and state that the DoD gave a contract worth $140 million dollars to Tekmira, a Canadian pharmaceutical company, to conduct Ebola research. This research work involved injecting and infusing healthy humans with the deadly Ebola virus.”

Why, we might wonder, don’t these corporations, if their work is so benign and altruistic, do their research in their own countries on their own populations? Why do they continuously seem to go to countries in Africa and Latin America?

Roberts’ article came out just a month after reports in the mainstream media regarding a group of health officials and journalists that came under attack in Guinea by local villagers who “feared that outsiders” had brought the disease into their community. Where on earth would they get such an idea?

The January 19 press release from Oxitec quotes company CEO Hadyn Parry as well as Piracicaba Mayor Gabriel Ferrato, both of whom express delight at the partnership formed between the biotech firm and the Brazilian city. “The city of Piracicaba has always sought innovative solutions to serious problems,” Ferrato proclaims.

You have to wonder about the sales pitches thrown at local officials like Ferrato. “Trust us, we’re smart Western scientists,” or some variation thereof perhaps.

So if the mosquitoes that caused, or at least possibly caused, the Zika outbreak were genetically engineered, what about the virus itself? Was it also genetically engineered? Hard to say. According to Wikipedia, the Zika virus was first isolated in 1952, but Wikipedia is so full of spin on a such a variety of issues, particularly political ones, that it’s difficult to take anything the “encyclopedia” presents with much more than a grain of salt. What’s clear is that the biotech industry falls into the same category as the nuclear industry: though it might yield some positive benefits, it also has the potential to do humanity completely in. And at the same time it doesn’t seem to be nearly as tightly regulated as the nuclear industry. Apparently any greed-driven fool can set up a lab and start splicing genes without having to go through much in the way of regulatory oversight.

Recently Stephen Hawking, one of the somewhat more intelligent members of the stupidest species on earth, cautioned that humanity is heading toward a disaster of its own making, and he warned ominously of three dangers in particular that pose a dire challenge to life on the planet. The first two items of concern were pretty much what you would expect: nuclear war and climate change.

It was the third item, however, that possibly raised a good many eyebrows, or at least it raised mine, for the third item on the list–which Hawking ominously warned imperils humanity’s future–was…genetically engineered viruses. Quite fascinating, really, that the mainstream media, which in large part have never even acknowledged the existence of such viruses, would report Hawking’s words, but in fact they did.

“We are not going to stop making progress, or reverse it,” Hawking told listeners that night, “so we have to recognize the dangers and control them.”

It’s a warning the stupid human species would do well to keep in mind–but I’m reasonably sure we won’t.

Richard Edmondson is the author of The Memoirs of Saint John: When the Sandstone Crumbles, a novel about an archaeological expedition to Syria, set amidst the current conflict in the country


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