Will Zika concerns override American fears over GMOs?

A biotech company has offered to send genetically modified mosquitoes into Florida to help the state combat its Zika threat, but some locals are more concerned about the unknowns of 'mutant bugs' in the environment.

Paulo Whitaker/Reuters/File
Aedes aegypti mosquitoes are seen inside Oxitec laboratory in Campinas, Brazil, Feb. 2. A biotech company has offered to send genetically modified mosquitoes into Florida to help the state combat its Zika threat, but some locals are more worried about the unknowns of genetic engineering.

A biotech company has modified the DNA of mosquitoes to combat the Zika virus in Florida, but cautious locals are not yet certain that concerns about Zika outweigh their mistrust of genetically engineered insects. 

The British company Oxitec has spent years creating a means for combatting mosquito-borne viruses, receiving a Federal Drug Administration clearance on Aug. 5, but uproar from Floridians led local officials to send the issue to a nonbinding referendum in November, NPR reported.

The debate in Florida touches on two key fears that are prevalent in many American's minds: a still-evolving concern over Zika and a persistent resistance to genetic engineering. Both issues evoke strong emotional responses for many Americans. Despite scientific evidence that anxieties may be overblown, the unknown remains a potent source of fear.

"I think the American public in general ... get a lot of their genetic information from movies like 'Jurassic Park,' so they are frightened very easily by those kinds of things," Joe Conlon, a technical advisor for the American Mosquito Control Association (AMCA), tells The Christian Science Monitor. "But the Oxitec way of doing things is very safe – it should be tried."

Although Zika cases only recently surfaced in Wynwood, Fla., this is not the first time that concerns about disease have forced scientists to confront the public mistrust of genetic tinkering. Oxitec started its bid to release disease-fighting mosquitoes in the Florida Keys nearly two years ago.

The idea is to release the genetically engineered mosquitoes into the wild, where they will breed with healthy females and produce offspring that die before reaching adulthood. In theory, only male mosquitoes, which don't bite humans, are released, and the company has successfully tested the model in Brazil and the Cayman Islands.

But protests on the ground – and a Change.org petition with more than 169,000 supporters – cite the chance of escaped females biting humans, the unexpected consequences of previous genetic experiments, and the fact, which Mr. Conlon acknowledged, that this is merely one part of a package to combat mosquito-borne disease. 

"There are too many questions," Mara Daly, a salon owner and protest organizer told US News and World Report. "My biggest concern is that we don't know the unintended consequences of this trial." 

Although Zika has inspired bipartisan unity from Florida politicians, the protests over a genetically engineered weapon against Zika finds a parallel in the Congressional inaction. Both stalemates have the same root cause: No one is worried enough. Too few Americans care enough about Zika to overcome the anxiety-inducing concessions required to combat it, as the Christian Science Monitor's Francine Kiefer wrote:

The answer to why Congress has failed to pass a funding measure reveals the typical roadblocks – partisan differences over spending and policy specifics. The frustration is over the urgency. The problem is not your average one. [Anthony Fauci, an infectious diseases specialist,] calls the Zika virus a 'pandemic in progress.'

But without a public outcry with potential electoral consequences, those differences could not be bridged. 

Even Floridians living near "ground zero" of the fight against a highly transmittable disease are not ready for a "radical approach" to combat it.

"Personally, I'm not afraid of Zika," Megan Hall, who lives on Sugarloaf Key, told NPR. "I know it's a huge problem in a lot of places, and I don't discount it. I know it's terrible what's going on in Brazil and all these places – Puerto Rico. But this is not an emergency."

Although Mr. Conlon insists the scientists at Oxitec are well-aware of all the risks cited by protesters and have taken steps against them, for many locals the threat of Zika remains too nebulous and faraway to overcome fears of playing "guinea pig" to "mutant bugs."

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