The same mosquitoes have reportedly been spotted in the UK
A WORLD-wide investigation is underway to find the cause of a likely pandemic of the deadly Zika Virus.
But the answer may lie within the walls of genetics company based in the south of England.
Three to four million people could be infected with the virus in the Americas alone this year, the World Health Organization (WHO) predicts.
Most will not develop symptoms, but the virus, spread by mosquitoes, has already been linked to brain defects in babies.
WHO director general Dr Margaret Chan said Zika had gone “from a mild threat to one of alarming proportions”.
She has set up a Zika “emergency team” after the “explosive” spread of the virus.
It will meet on Monday to decide whether Zika should be treated as a global emergency.
The last time an international emergency was declared was for the Ebola outbreak in West Africa, which has killed more than 11,000 people.
Zika was first detected in Uganda in 1947, but has never caused an outbreak on this scale.
Brazil reported the first cases of Zika in South America in May 2015.
Most cases result in no symptoms and it is hard to test for, but WHO officials said between 500,000 and 1.5 million people had been infected in the country.
The virus has since spread to more than 20 countries in the region.
At the same time there has been a steep rise in levels of microcephaly – babies born with abnormally small heads – and the rare nervous system disorder Guillain-Barre syndrome.
The link between the virus and these disorders has not been confirmed, but Dr Chan said it was “strongly suspected” and was “deeply alarming”.
And she warned the situation could yet deteriorate as “this year’s El Nino weather patterns are expected to increase mosquito populations greatly in many areas”.
The virus reportedly has the potential to reach pandemic proportions — possibly around the globe.
The WHO statement explains the problem: “A causal relationship between Zika virus infection and birth malformations and neurological syndromes … is strongly suspected.
“These links have rapidly changed the risk profile of Zika, from a mild threat to one of alarming proportions.
“WHO is deeply concerned about this rapidly evolving situation for four main reasons: the possible association of infection with birth malformations and neurological syndromes; the potential for further international spread given the wide geographical distribution of the mosquito vector; the lack of population immunity in newly affected areas; and the absence of vaccines, specific treatments, and rapid diagnostic tests.
“The level of concern is high, as is the level of uncertainty.”
Zika seems to have exploded out of nowhere.
Although it was first discovered in 1947, cases only sporadically occurred throughout Africa and southern Asia.
In 2007, the first case was reported in the Pacific.
In 2013, a smattering of small outbreaks and individual cases were officially documented in Africa and the western Pacific.
They also began showing up in the Americas. In May 2015, Brazil reported its first case of Zika virus — and the situation changed dramatically.
Brazil is now considered the epicentre of the Zika outbreak, which coincides with at least 4,000 reports of babies born with microcephaly since October.
But, there was another significant development in 2015.
Oxfordshire based company Oxitec Ltd first unveiled its large-scale, genetically-modified mosquito farm in Brazil in July 2012, with the goal of reducing “the incidence of dengue fever,” as The Disease Daily reported.
Dengue fever is spread by the same Aedes mosquitoes which spread the Zika virus — and though they “cannot fly more than 400 metres,” WHO stated, “it may inadvertently be transported by humans from one place to another.”
By July 2015, shortly after the GM mosquitoes were first released into the wild in Juazeiro, Brazil, Oxitec announced it had “successfully controlled the Aedes aegypti mosquito that spreads dengue fever, chikungunya and zika virus, by reducing the target population by more than 90%.”
Though that might sound like a success, there is an alarming possibility to consider.
The particular strain of Oxitec GM mosquitoes, OX513A, are genetically altered so the vast majority of their offspring will die before they mature.
But highly regarded molecular geneticist Dr Ricarda Steinbrecher published concerns in a report in September 2010 that a known survival rate of three to four percent warranted further study before the release of the GM insects.
Her concerns, which were echoed by several other scientists both at the time and since, appear to have been ignored.
Those genetically-modified mosquitoes work to control wild, potentially disease-carrying populations in a very specific manner.
Only the male modified Aedes mosquitoes are supposed to be released into the wild — as they will mate with their unaltered female counterparts.
Once offspring are produced, the modified, scientific facet is supposed to ‘kick in’ and kill that larvae before it reaches breeding age — if tetracycline is not present during its development.
But there is a problem.
According to a document from the Trade and Agriculture Directorate Committee for Agriculture dated February 2015, Brazil is the third largest in “global antimicrobial consumption in food animal production” — meaning, Brazil is third in the world for its use of tetracycline in its food animals.
As a study by the American Society of Agronomy explained: “It is estimated that approximately 75% of antibiotics are not absorbed by animals and are excreted in waste.”
One of the antibiotics specifically named in that report for its environmental persistence is tetracycline.
A confidential internal Oxitec document revealed in 2012, that survival rate could be as high as 15% — even with low levels of tetracycline present. “Even small amounts of tetracycline can repress” the engineered lethality.
That 15% survival rate was described by Oxitec: “After a lot of testing and comparing experimental design, it was found that researchers had used a cat food to feed the [OX513A] larvae and this cat food contained chicken.
“It is known that tetracycline is routinely used to prevent infections in chickens, especially in the cheap, mass produced, chicken used for animal food.
“The chicken is heat-treated before being used, but this does not remove all the tetracycline. This meant that a small amount of tetracycline was being added from the food to the larvae and repressing the lethal system.”
A “sub-population” of genetically-modified Aedes mosquitoes could theoretically develop and thrive, in theory, “capable of surviving and flourishing despite any further” releases of ‘pure’ GM mosquitoes which still have that gene intact.
She added: “the effectiveness of the system also depends on the genetically-designed late onset of the lethality. If the time of onset is altered due to environmental conditions … then a 3-4% survival rate represents a much bigger problem.”
Brazil has now called in 200,000 soldiers to somehow help combat the virus’ spread.
Aedes mosquitoes have reportedly been spotted in the UK.
Ironically a proposition was offered on 19 January, by the MIT Technology Review: “An outbreak in the Western Hemisphere could give countries including the United States new reasons to try wiping out mosquitoes with genetic engineering.
“The GM mosquitoes were created by Oxitec, a British company recently purchased by Intrexon, a synthetic biology company based in Maryland, USA. The company said it has released bugs in parts of Brazil and the Cayman Islands to battle dengue fever.”
Meanwhile, the head of the International Olympic Committee says steps are being taken to protect the Games in Rio de Janeiro later this year.
Thomas Bach said the IOC would issue advice this week on how to keep athletes and visitors safe in Brazil, the worst affected country.
Officials from the US National Institute of Health said they had two potential Zika vaccines in development.
One that is based on an experimental West Nile vaccine could be repurposed for Zika and enter clinical trials by the end of 2016, said Dr Anthony Fauci from NIH.
He said talks were already taking place with pharmaceutical companies, but a vaccine would not be widely available for several years.
- Credit Claire Bernish and the AntiMedia.org