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Debunking the Zika Conspiracy Theories

by Mark Hay

February 4, 2016
Reverse vampires

Over the past few weeks, medical bodies ranging from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to the World Health Organization declared the spread of the Zika virus a health emergency. And as always happens when an outbreak reaches a transnational critical mass—from avian flu to swine flu to Ebola—the fear and growing international response around Zika have triggered a wave of conspiracy theories. Every crackpot has his or her own narrative that explains the disease and the worries surrounding it, from scientific hubris, to false-flag corruption cover-ups, to a population-control plot by a shadowy global elite. But most theories contend either that the disease is spreading via genetically modified mosquitoes, or that Zika is a smoke screen for more sinister causes behind emerging maladies. It almost goes without saying that these theories don’t hold up to scrutiny. But rather than just brushing them aside with a chuckle, as many of us often do, the Zika conspiracy theories deserve a thorough debunking as they risk stymieing vital prevention and treatment projects for both Zika and a host of other more established diseases.

Most conspiracy theories around Zika ultimately stem from the fact that, although it’s been around for decades, we never paid much attention until recently. A flavivirus (meaning it’s a relative of dengue fever, Japanese encephalitis, West Nile virus, and yellow fever) transmitted by the Aedes aegypti mosquito found in many tropical and subtropical regions of the world, Zika was first detected in a rhesus monkey in the Zika Forest of Uganda in 1947. The first human cases emerged in Tanzania in 1952, eventually spreading out of East Africa in the late 1960s. Yet there were no major outbreaks until 2007, when a suspected 185 cases hit the Micronesian island of Yap; in 2013 a larger outbreak, 10,000 cases, hit French Polynesia. Yet most—even in the medical community—didn’t worry too much about these outbreaks because Zika is usually a relatively benign disease. Symptoms emerge within two weeks, and develop in only 20 percent of those infected. And the fever, joint pain, rash, and red eyes it causes are usually manageable and fade within about a week. That’s a big part of why we haven’t developed vaccines or treatments for it.

Yet this disease caught the attention of the world in late 2015 because it started to spread much faster and farther than ever before in a new part of the world: Brazil. No one’s entirely sure how it got there. It showed up in Chile in 2014, only to disappear soon after, but most assume an international traveler brought it to Brazil in the same year, during the World Cup. In May 2015, the disease cropped up in Brazil’s northeast—and has since spread to at least 1.5 million Brazilians and many others in over two dozen other nations, with some speculating that it could eventually overtake the southeastern United States, as well as most of Latin America. 

More worrying than the speed and scale of the disease’s spread over the past months is the fact that since October it’s been correlated with a freakish rise in microcephaly in Brazil. A condition in which babies are born with small heads (which in 15 percent of cases is just that, but in most leads to mental and physical impairments or even death), microcephaly is not a known effect of Zika. But doctors in Pernambuco, Brazil, noted that whereas they usually had about nine microcephaly cases pop up each year, since the rise of Zika there have been 646, leading to a red flag that infectious bites to pregnant women might be having an effect on fetuses. Since then about 4,000 cases of microcephaly have been reported (although only 404 have been confirmed by experts and 709 have been discounted) in Brazil—a vast spike over the national average of 150 and suspiciously clustered near the country’s main Zika outbreak zone. This link is only speculative for now. But it has led to travel advisories for pregnant women. And news of a case in Texas spread via sexual intercourse (something experts suspected was possible but hadn’t confirmed), plus the fact that the disease could possibly spread through other mosquito species with a wider range, has led to widespread fears of a global epidemic of microcephaly births.

Perhaps the most commonly cited conspiracy theory behind the rise of Zika has to do with experiments with genetically modified mosquitoes in Brazil. Basically these mosquitoes are encoded with a gene that causes the vast majority of their offspring to die before reaching maturity. Conspiracy theorists argue that somehow this gene failed, possibly because scientists didn’t consider that an antibiotic additive called tetracycline present in livestock dung might block it, or possibly because a Bill Gates-backed cabal actually wanted it to go that way. These theorists argue that Zika correlates to the location and timing of the modified mosquitoes’ release, so their wild proliferation must somehow be responsible for the introduction, or at the very least the spread, of the virus.

Almost nothing in this theory makes sense. First and foremost, not only does the rise of Zika alongside the rise of modified mosquitoes fall short of causal proof, but the correlation is also false. The theory’s progenitors wrongly identified the location of the modified mosquitoes’ release into the wild in Brazil—a project that has actually been going on since 2009 and not just in 2015, as some sources seem to believe. The closest site with modified mosquitoes, which cannot fly more than a few hundred meters away from their home in their lifetimes, appears to be 400 miles away from Recife, the epicenter of the outbreak. And Piracicaba, where a new batch was released in 2015 (fitting the theory’s timeline), lies 1,300 miles away from the epicenter.

Beyond that, male mosquitoes (which the modified organisms were) do not bite; females do. The altered insects would need to breed offspring for any supposedly malevolent modified females to exist, and genetic modification should make offspring die off as larvae. The mechanism that most theories claim is allowing these offspring to survive—the presence of tetracycline in the local environment—actually was on the radar of scientists, who concluded that the chemical’s presence in the regions where mosquitoes were released was not enough to block the death gene. Plus, Brazil phased out the additive in 2009. And tests of the modified mosquitoes’ release have shown the experiment has crashed total mosquito populations in test areas by over 90 percent, which should (as was intended) reduce the transmission of Zika and other diseases, not raise it.

Even if there really was a correlation between Zika and modified mosquitoes who became viable breeders, it’s not clear exactly how these particular insects would be connected with the disease—how they would have gotten it or made it more dangerous than in the past. One theory posits that some strange mutation occurred in a mosquito with Zika (from an unknown source). But scientists have sequenced the genome of the Zika virus strand behind the outbreak and found no evidence of this. The only other way modified mosquitoes could be implicated is if, as some believe based on the presence of Zika in biological supply catalogs, some sinister force purposefully infected and then released these mosquitoes, perhaps after having modified them, to implement population control. But even believers in this theory admit it would have taken a fraud of extraordinary scope—and it just so happens that a new mathematical paper out this year demonstrates the unlikelihood of pulling off such a conspiracy or subsequently keeping a lid on it. That, and the motives for such an attack are pure paranoid conjecture.

The alternative theory posits that Zika either doesn’t exist or is harmless and being used as a cover-up for microcephaly caused by other factors—pesticide poisoning, Tdap vaccination of pregnant women (again, possibly for population control), or malnutrition through corruption and negligence. This argument hinges in large part on the idea that viruses don’t suddenly become more dangerous than they used to be, so Zika must be a false flag covering up malfeasance. 

It’s worth noting that this theory contradicts the idea that modified mosquitoes are spreading the dangers of Zika—because in this theory Zika isn’t the culprit. That might seem to go without saying, because these are two separate conspiracy theories. But for some people, like the absurd Jon Rappoport, they’re not. Rappoport helpfully points out that epidemics can have multiple causes, listing both mosquitoes and toxins as possible factors in this one. But while he’s right about that, they generally can’t have two mutually exclusive causes. The only way you could tie the modified mosquitoes theory to the toxin theory is if spreading Zika were an excuse for disseminating toxic repellants to pregnant women for population control. But that level of complexity has no discernible purpose save to justify a flimsy theory made in equal parts of straw and delusion. 

To be fair to the toxin theorists, it’s true that microcephaly could be caused by many other factors, like exposure during pregnancy to cytomegalovirus, diabetes, high alcohol consumption, mercury, radiation, rubella, severe malnutrition, or toxoplasmosis. These causes trigger a fair amount of microcephaly in the United States, for instance (25,000 cases a year). But though the link to Zika is tentative for now, a campaign of misdirection by shadowy global elites is certainly not the only alternative possibility, and again, also not a likely one.  

Even if not proven, the case for a tie between microcephaly and Zika is actually a lot stronger than conspiracy theorists make it out to be. Although it was not deeply studied at the time, during the French Polynesian Zika outbreak experts noted spikes in both microcephaly and another rare neurological disorder, Guillain-Barré syndrome, which causes paralysis. And initial research on the current outbreak has found Zika in the brains of two babies who died of microcephaly; evidence of Zika infections in two pregnant women who gave birth to microcephalitic children; and a case of a microcephalitic baby born in Hawaii after his mother likely contracted Zika in Brazil in May 2015. Beyond this, when scientists sequenced the Zika genome, they did notice mutations (because, ahem, viruses are always changing, all the damn time). Given that the family of diseases in which Zika resides can have neurological effects, it’s not out of the question that this mutation could have increased certain risk factors in the disease, explaining the link. That’s still circumstantial and speculative argumentation. But it holds more water than GMO mosquitoes or a false-flag cover-up.

None of this means that the prevailing narrative of Zika’s tie to microcephaly is definitive. Not even scientists make that claim. Right now we’re still trying to figure out what’s up with this disease and the microcephaly outbreak. The microcephaly could be tied to something we haven’t detected, or to Zika working in conjunction with another factor. Perhaps we are panicking a bit too much about Zika as well; it’s probably sufficient (in the United States, at least) to avoid unnecessary travel to affected areas, use DEET repellants when there, and use protection during sex for a couple of weeks after returning to avoid any chance of transmission, even if the microcephaly tie turns out to be overstated or bogus. But conspiracy theories based on wrongheaded information, pale understandings of science, and fabricated motives by murky actors aren’t going to help us parse the true state of Zika, or learn how best we should be responding to the outbreak.

On the contrary, these theories might hurt people—even kill people. Twisting facts to present a paranoid fable of population control to people who are in a place of confusion and vulnerability increases the risk that individuals or regions might boycott Zika vaccines or treatments, in which a number of nations and companies are investing. If Zika is truly a threat, this is a deadly gambit. Meanwhile, spreading disinformation about modified mosquitoes threatens to do even more damage, as projects like the one in Brazil are our best bid at stopping an invasive species that we brought to the New World during the age of exploration, almost eliminated in the mid-20th century, and have now allowed to creep back into existence. The Aedes aegypti’s entrenchment in the tropics of the Americas has been a force of death and pain for ages, and threatens to become even more of a source of woe as it extends its range in a warming environment. Convincing people that well-controlled and tested modified mosquitoes are an existential threat is a great way to lose local support for trials, halting progress on mosquito and mosquito-borne-disease control, and incidentally aiding not just Zika but a host of other diseases as well.

It’s fine to doubt a popular narrative. It’s even commendable to cast a wary eye toward aggressive actions on the part of major corporations or governments with documented histories of abuse. But it is never acceptable to indulge in conspiratorial fantasy that twists facts in favor of a fearful, crackpot worldview when the lives of thousands are on the line. And that’s what these theories are: a mélange of cherry-picked data, willful ignorance, and distortion thrown through a rock tumbler of dogmatic hate and conviction, then spewed into an arena of pain and confusion. They are not just laughable—they are also dangerous and they must be stomped out posthaste in the name of health and reason.

Display image by Steve Jurvetson via Flickr

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Debunking the Zika Conspiracy Theories