The Zika conspiracies have begun

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.

Who’s claiming this? Stories at Natural News, the Daily Mirror, The Ecologist, and Antimedia, among others. Alex Jones brings in the Bill Gates connection.

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.

Claim Two: a program encouraging pregnant women to get the Tdap vaccine led to the presumed increase in microcephaly in Brazilian babies. Because, toxins?

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].

Who’s claiming this? Chemtrails Global Skywatch and The Freethought Project.

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).

Who’s claiming this? HIV denier and anti-vax advocate Jon Rappoport, among others (another post of his here on the topic). A very common sentiment in the comments pages on anti-vaccine pages.

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.

Zika: what we’re still missing

As you’ve probably seen, unless you’ve been living in a cave, Zika virus is the infectious disease topic du jour. From an obscure virus to the newest scare, interest in the virus has skyrocketed just in the past few weeks:

 
I have a few pieces already on Zika, so I won’t repeat myself here. The first is an introductory primer to the virus, answering the basic questions–what is it, where did it come from, what are its symptoms, why is it concerning? The second focuses on Zika’s potential risk to pregnant women, and what is currently being advised for them.

I want to be clear, though–currently, we aren’t 100% sure that Zika virus is causing microcephaly, the condition that is most concerning with this recent outbreak. The circumstantial evidence appears to be pretty strong, but we don’t have good data on 1) how common microcephaly really was in Brazil (or other affected countries) prior to the outbreak. Microcephaly seems to have increased dramatically, but some of those cases are not confirmed, and others don’t seem to be related to Zika; and if Zika really is causing microcephaly, 2) how Zika could be causing this, whether timing of the infection makes a difference, and whether women who are infected asymptomatically are at risk of medical problems in their developing fetuses.

The first question needs good epidemiological data for answers. This can be procured in a few ways. First, babies born with microcephaly, and their mothers, can be tested for Zika virus infection. This can be looked at a few ways: finding traces of the virus itself; finding antibodies to the virus (suggesting a past infection–but one can’t know the exact timing of this); and asking about known infections during pregnancy. Each approach has advantages and limitations. Tracking the virus or its genetic material is a gold standard, but the virus may only be present in body fluids for a short time. So if you miss that window, a false negative could result. This could be coupled with serology, to look at past infection–but you can’t be 100% certain in that case that the infection occurred during pregnancy–though with the apparently recent introduction of Zika into the Americas, it’s likely that infection would be fairly recent.

Serology coupled with an infection in pregnancy that has symptoms consistent with Zika (headache, muscle/joint pain, rash, fever) would be a step up from this, but has some additional problems. Other viral infections can be similar in symptoms to Zika (dengue, chikungunya, even influenza if the patient is lacking a rash), so tests to rule those out should also be done. On the flip side, about 80% of Zika infections show no symptoms at all–so a woman could still have come into contact with the virus and have positive serology, but she wouldn’t have any recollection of infection.

None of this is easy to carry out, but needs to be done in order to really establish with some level of certainty that Zika is the cause of microcephaly in this area. In the meantime, there are a few other possibilities to consider: that another virus (such as rubella) is circulating there. This is a known cause of multiple congenital issues, including microcephaly. This could explain why they’re seeing cases of microcephaly in Brazil, but none have been reported thus far in Colombia. Another is that there is no real increase in microcephaly at all–that, for some reason, people have just recently started paying more attention to it, and associated it with the Zika outbreak in the area–what we call a surveillance bias.

This is a fast-moving story, and we probably won’t have any solid answers to these questions for some time. In the interim, I think it’s prudent to take this as a possibility, and raise awareness of the potential this virus *may* have on the developing fetus, so that women can take precautions as they’re able. Public health is about prevention, and there have certainly been cases in the past of links between A and B that fell apart under further scrutiny. Zika/microcephaly may be one, but for now, it’s an unfortunate case where “more research is needed” is about the best answer one can currently give.