January 30, 2016
Zika Virus, Microcephaly Risk, New Vaccines, Mosquito Extinction

Estimates in the press claim 3000-4000 microcephaly babies have been born in Brazil alone due to Zika virus infections in women while pregnant. Maybe. You might be surprised to learn that the Zika-microcephaly link has not yet been proven. Here are rough calculations on whether the threat is real. The scientific jury is still out. Do not panic.

Suppose the threat is real. A BBC story puts a vaccine a decade away: Zika virus: US scientists say vaccine '10 years away' But a Reuters story has Inovio Pharmaceuticals ready to start testing an emergency vaccine in several months for use before year's end. Faced with the prospect of tens of thousands of microcephaly babies how will governments respond? Will they pull out all the stops and remove roadblocks so that a vaccine can come to market in many countries in less than a year?

Zika has been transmitted by mosquito in over 20 countries so far. It is new in the Western Hemisphere. Zika was only confirmed in Brazil in May 2015.

Zika cases in humans were first identified in Africa in 1952. What enabled its spread? Globalization. Humans carried the Aedes Aegypti mosquito (which evolved to live off of humans) eggs around the globe. Well, Aedes Aegypti carries a number of pathogens that harm humans including Dengue Fever, Chikungunya, Zika Fever and Yellow Fever viruses, as explained by my previous link to a Wikipedia page on Aedes Aegypti. Given that this particular mosquito carries 4 harmful pathogens I think we ought to give its spread special attention.

Luckily, a company called Oxitec has developed genetically modified male mosquitoes which mate with wild females to make offspring that die before maturation. As they point out mosquitoes pass diseases into 350-500 million people each year. Their approach has been met with opposition from those who oppose genetic modification of organisms. In that (quite excellent) article note the problems the Florida Keys Mosquito Control District has hit trying to reduce mosquito populations. They've managed to cut numbers 50%. Brazil needs Oxitec's approach on a massive scale.

The human health damage caused by mosquitoes has led to calls to completely wipe out mosquitoes, to literally drive them to extinction. Some scientists claim it is possible to wipe out mosquitoes. Some oppose this idea. But consider that there are hundreds of mosquito species and they exist in many habitats. A more limited scale of wipe-out could be done. Both Aedes aegypti and Aedes albopictus carry human diseases and both are invasive in most areas they are found. If we wiped out both these species in the Americas we'd just be restoring the mosquito status quo to where it was before Europeans found the New World. So in the Western Hemisphere I say wipe out these two species. Extermination. As for the rest of the world: Side effects of wiping out mosquitoes might be minimal. Then again, an entomologist thinks mosquitoes have an important ecological role to play:

If mosquitoes went extinct: Mosquito larvae are very important in aquatic ecology. Many other insects and small fish feed on them and the loss of that food source would cause their numbers to decline as well. Anything that feeds on them, such as game fish, raptorial birds, etc. would in turn suffer too.

My guess is this role could be filled by mosquito species that do not bite humans. We can safely wipe out mosquito species that bite humans that are in areas we've spread them to. That gives us a lot of potential to scale back the amount of disease caused by mosquitoes.

Share |      Randall Parker, 2016 January 30 03:39 PM 

Joseph Moroco said at January 31, 2016 4:36 PM:

If I lived in a skeeter zone, I'd want skeeter extinction, as long as I didn't have to figure out how to take care of the increase in population.

th said at February 1, 2016 3:59 PM:

here's the rest of the story...... zerohedge.com/news/2016-01-29/zika-outbreak-epicenter-same-area-genetically-modified-mosquitoes-released-2015

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