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."

You've read  of  free articles. Subscribe to continue.
Real news can be honest, hopeful, credible, constructive.
What is the Monitor difference? Tackling the tough headlines – with humanity. Listening to sources – with respect. Seeing the story that others are missing by reporting what so often gets overlooked: the values that connect us. That’s Monitor reporting – news that changes how you see the world.

Dear Reader,

About a year ago, I happened upon this statement about the Monitor in the Harvard Business Review – under the charming heading of “do things that don’t interest you”:

“Many things that end up” being meaningful, writes social scientist Joseph Grenny, “have come from conference workshops, articles, or online videos that began as a chore and ended with an insight. My work in Kenya, for example, was heavily influenced by a Christian Science Monitor article I had forced myself to read 10 years earlier. Sometimes, we call things ‘boring’ simply because they lie outside the box we are currently in.”

If you were to come up with a punchline to a joke about the Monitor, that would probably be it. We’re seen as being global, fair, insightful, and perhaps a bit too earnest. We’re the bran muffin of journalism.

But you know what? We change lives. And I’m going to argue that we change lives precisely because we force open that too-small box that most human beings think they live in.

The Monitor is a peculiar little publication that’s hard for the world to figure out. We’re run by a church, but we’re not only for church members and we’re not about converting people. We’re known as being fair even as the world becomes as polarized as at any time since the newspaper’s founding in 1908.

We have a mission beyond circulation, we want to bridge divides. We’re about kicking down the door of thought everywhere and saying, “You are bigger and more capable than you realize. And we can prove it.”

If you’re looking for bran muffin journalism, you can subscribe to the Monitor for $15. You’ll get the Monitor Weekly magazine, the Monitor Daily email, and unlimited access to CSMonitor.com.

QR Code to Will Zika concerns override American fears over GMOs?
Read this article in
QR Code to Subscription page
Start your subscription today