GMO Mosquitoes: Will Zika Change the Equation?

As the Zika virus outbreak continues and mosquito season in this hemisphere approaches, there will be a ramp up in vector control activities. These activities are aimed at reducing mosquito populations and are practiced for several types of mosquitoes, most notably those that spread West Nile Fever. However, even prior to the Zika outbreak, because of the threat of dengue and chikungunya, aggressive campaigns against Aedes mosquitoes had taken place in certain areas such as Texas, Hawaii, and Florida.

Florida, which has had several instances of local transmission of both dengue and chikungunya, has been a national leader in mosquito control as exemplified by the Key West Mosquito Control District. Over the past years, faced with a continual threat of dengue, the use of Oxitec's sterile male genetically modified mosquitoes to reduce Aedes aegypti populations has been contemplated as a means to augment ordinary mosquito control operations. 

However, in today's context, "genetically modified" evokes an unjustified Frankenstein/Jurassic Park horror in many people and has stalled release of these mosquitoes in the US (they have been part of trial releases in the Cayman Islands, Panama, and Brazil).

Given this context, pre-Zika, my colleagues and I sought to understand how the public conceives of GMO mosquitoes and what their support or opposition is influenced on. To meet this aim we fielded surveys to residents of a Florida community in which the release of these mosquitoes is being contemplated. PLoS Currents Outbreaks just published the results of that work.

There were several findings that we found particularly striking:

  • Being a female was significantly associated with being opposed to the use of GMO mosquitoes
  • Having never known anyone with chikungunya or dengue was significantly associated with opposition to use of GMO mosquitoes

The 2nd finding is what I deem the most important, as it reflects the role of risk assessment on an individual level and will likely change as people's threat assessment changes. A headline-grabbing virus like Zika may be just the threat that will cause people to think differently about GMO mosquitoes -- something that is already happening.

We hope to follow this paper with a follow-up post-Zika study of the same area as well as explore the mechanics and public health communication strategies used in the Cayman Islands, Panama, and Brazil. Additionally, it will be important to put GMO mosquitoes firmly in the tradition of such endeavors as the eradication of the agricultural screwworm pest, irradiated sterile mosquitoes, and Wolbachia-infected mosquitoes.

It is the role of public health authorities and physicians to help calibrate the general public's analysis and our hope is that this paper can help move the discussion of GMO mosquitoes further forward.