Like cockroaches, the conspiracy theorists suggesting the Zika virus outbreak is anything but a normal, naturally-occurring event have begun to come out of the woodwork. To be expected, the theories they’re espousing make no sense scientifically, and each theory is incompatible with the others, but why should anyone expect that conspiracy theorists would actually use logic?
Claim One: the current Zika virus outbreak is due to the release of genetically-modified mosquitoes by British company Oxitec. The suggestion is that GMO mosquitoes were released in the same area of Brazil now experiencing Zika outbreaks, and somehow these mosquitoes caused the outbreak. The mosquitoes are engineered to require the antibiotic tetracycline in order to survive development in the wild, so when a wild female mosquito breeds with a male GMO mosquitoe, it’s essentially is a death sentence to the female’s offspring. Theorists argue that livestock use of tetracycline leaves this antibiotic in the environment, allowing some offspring to survive. Somehow, Zika is inserted into this.
What’s wrong with it? There’s absolutely nothing that makes sense to relate this to Zika. Even if these GMO mosquitoes can reproduce, that doesn’t mean they’re suddenly infected with the Zika virus. This article probably lays it out the best as far as a suggested mechanism, but even then it’s a convoluted mess, suggesting a transposon* (a “jumping gene”) moved from the mosquito into Zika virus (but where did the Zika come from in the first place though? was it already in Brazil?), then that transposon made Zika more virulent and gave the virus “an enhanced ability to enter and disrupt human DNA” (what??), which then leads to microcephaly. All without absolutely any citations from the scientific literature to back up this scenario, of course.
And that’s even assuming that the area where the testing occurred was the same as where the mosquitoes were released. It’s not, as both The Mad Virologist and Christie Wilcox point out. Both have many more details taking down this theory as well.
Who’s claiming this? Really credible places, like Brazilian Shrunken Head Babies (not even joking).
What’s wrong with it? Pretty much everything. First, the vaccine isn’t recommended until relatively late in pregnancy; even one of the links cited by the “shrunken heads” page notes that it’s suggested in the 27th to 36th week of pregnancy. This is very late in pregnancy to have such a severe effect on brain/skull development. For other microbes that cause microcephaly (such as cytomegalovirus or rubella), infection occurring in the first half of the pregnancy (before 20 weeks) is usually associated with a higher likelihood of adverse developmental outcomes, not one very late like Tdap. And of course, this theory completely contradicts the “Zika-GMO mosquito” one, which suggests that Zika is the cause.
Biologically, this makes zero sense–and furthermore, why wouldn’t other countries be seeing this spike, if Tdap is truly the cause? Women in the U.S. and other countries also receive this vaccine during pregnancy, but we haven’t seen an increase in microcephaly cases. Furthermore, a recent study has demonstrated yet again that Tdap is very safe during pregnancy.
Claim Three: Rockefeller something something bioterrorism something, maybe. They’ve taken the fact that an organization, the American Type Culture Collection (ATCC), has Zika virus available on their website, and twisted that into apparently some kind of deliberate release, maybe? It’s all pretty shadowy. [Updated: this site very clearly says the Rockefellers invented it to kill people. If that were true, they did a pretty shitty job].
What’s wrong with it? Even the Freethought Project post basically unravels its own conspiracy theory, but still posted this for some reason, noting “It seems that while the virus is available online, it is not extremely easy to get, and would likely require some extremely creative fraud in order to make it happen,” but concluding that “…it definitely does seem that it would be possible for a group or individual that is determined enough to make their way through the website’s security measures.”
I seriously doubt that.
For those of you who don’t know, ATCC is basically a global clearinghouse for biological samples–they offer tissue culture lines, bacteria, viruses, etc. Researchers need these for a number of reasons, such as having positive controls for assays, or to be sure they’re using the same cells as another investigator whose work they want to replicate or expand upon. I’ve used them many times to get both bacteriophage as well as isolates of bacteria for my research projects. And they won’t ship to just some random person.
When I moved institutions and set up my new laboratory, on my first ATCC order, they contacted the director of biosafety at my institution to be sure my lab was equipped and ready to handle the organisms I had requested. When that was assured, we still had to establish a Material Transfer Agreement in order for the items to actually be shipped–a legal document between ATCC and my university, signed by an “authorized representative” of my institution. It was only after jumping through all of these hoops that I was finally able to get the requested samples.
Even if someone had chosen to order Zika, an obscure, mostly-asymptomatic virus that until this outbreak was not associated with any serious ill effects, and perpetuated the “extremely creative fraud” mentioned by the Freethought Project…why? They’d need to initially infect themselves or others in order for the mosquitoes to subsequently become competent vectors of the virus. The mosquitoes would feed on them when there was adequate virus in the blood, and presumably the insects would then be released–to what end? To spread a previously-thought-relatively-harmless virus into a new population? Again, nonsensical.
[Updated: this doesn’t mean that “Rockefeller owns the patent on Zika virus,” as sites like this are claiming. As far as I can ascertain, there are no patents involving Zika. What it means is that the virus was deposited by Jordi Casals, who was an eminent virologist and had a large collection of viruses that he accumulated throughout his career, including Zika (but many others, as a search of ATCC shows). Rockefeller makes no money on this–in fact, now some journals require deposition of strains to ATCC or similar banks as a condition for publishing.]
Claim four: Zika simply doesn’t exist and/or isn’t causing microcephaly, and the “outbreak” is a ploy to push the not-yet-extant Zika vaccine/get people to blindly obey the government. (hat tip to Mary Mangan for this one).
What’s wrong with it? Pretty much everything. Rappoport has made a meta-conspiracy theory, claiming the increase in microcephaly is caused not by Zika, but by a combination of pesticide use and manufacturing, the Tdap and GMO mosquitoes mentioned above, mosquito sprays, and poverty/sanitation/malnutrition (the boogeymen of every anti-vaccine advocate). While he’s correct that the link between Zika and microcephaly isn’t yet 100% confirmed (as I mentioned yesterday), he’s taking at face value the claim that there actually is an increase in microcephaly at all–something which is also not been confirmed. So like many science deniers, he’s taking the parts of the research that fit his biases (look at how toxic Brazil is! Of course it’s causing health problems in babies!) and ignoring the parts he doesn’t–that if there is an increase in microcephaly, Zika might be a driving force. In his mind, the virus is irrelevant and just a mechanism to make the public into “sheep” who will fall in line with government recommendations.
I’m sure this will not be the last of the conspiracy theories. Like those we saw with Ebola, these have the potential to cause real harm. Outcry over the GMO mosquito program can curtail use of another agent to control the Aedes aegypti mosquito–the primary vector not only of Zika, but also yellow fever, chikungunya, and dengue. I know those who benefit from these type of conspiracies will never stop churning them out (Mike Adams, I’m looking at you), but we need to bring them to the light and show just how little scientific support any of this has. It won’t inoculate everyone against these ideas, but hopefully it will provide enough community immunity that they’re unable to spread far and wide.
*Christie Wilcox pointed out another great observation on just how implausible this is–that the potential to insert a 8.4kb double-stranded DNA transposon into a 10.8kb single-stranded RNA virus is…not possible. So, yeah, just to add to the ridiculousness of that idea.