Holy Cow, and We Thought GMO Was A Tough Decision

First, a nasty little list: Zika, West Nile, dengue, equine encephalitis, malaria, yellow fever, chikungunya, Rift Valley Fever, Kyasanur Forest Disease.

Second, a word, arbovirus; a term used by epidemiologists to refer to numerous viruses that replicate in blood-feeding arthropods such as mosquitoes, sandflies, lice, mites and ticks and are transferred to humans by biting. Worldwide there are some 500 viruses so transmitted, about a hundred infect humans, diseases that in most cases are mild, including Zika, if not necessarily the side effects. The infections can be separated into their clinical syndromes: fevers, hepatitis, hemorrhagic fevers, encephalitides, characterized by fevers, rash, bleeding into the viscera and skin.

The rather odd thing about some of these diseases is how variable are the symptoms person to person. Most people when infected with West Nile develop no symptoms, while 20 percent of those infected can have febrile illness: headache, joint ache, diarrhea, rashes; they may recover quickly or have fatigue and weakness for weeks, even months. One percent has a severe reaction, serious neurologic symptoms: encephalitis, meningitis, high fever, neck stiffness, disorientation, coma, tremors, seizures, paralysis. About 10 percent of those who develop neurologic infection die.

The bad part of this tale is that 1/10th of 1 percent chance of death, the good part is science coming to the rescue, and with none other than the endorsement of the Right Reverend E.O. Wilson saying the cure is a slam dunk. You ought remember E.O. Wilson, who single-handedly rewrote the Book of Genesis, the part where it says, and “we shall make them in our own image.” This, where most of us reference human beings as being in god’s image. This, where E.O. installs ants. Ants shall inherit the earth and have done so for 92 million years, including transit of a major extinction event, which counts as possession in most courts.

In Australia, Vietnam, Brazil, promising results for mosquito-borne disease has been gained by releasing mosquitoes infected with Wolbachia, a bacterium that modifies host species’ reproduction such that the male develops as a female or the strain becomes infertile or the lifetime of the mosquito is so reduced that it can’t reproduce. Where this experiment has been tried, dengue fever and malaria have been better managed. “Yipee kiyah!” we should sing in universal chorus, a nasty disease, solved.

Except…Elgion Loveto and Gabriel Wallan of the Federal University of Rio Grande do Sul, Brazil, Department of Entomology, suggest there is a chance the Wolbachia strains will transmit to other insects. It is known this bacteria can translocate among distantly related arthropods (such as other mosquitoes) in a short time span. While chemical spraying has its costs and risks, resistance, non-target species, human contact issues, and using Wolbachia bacteria can eliminate the insecticide issues – what are the consequences of a host shift for this transient bacterium?

The Cartagena Protocol is a U.N. safety regulation for the transfer, handling and use of GMOs and is ascribed to by 170 countries. It is not applicable to the Wolbachia bacteria as is considered non-transgenic. The cautionary authors in a letter to the American Academy of Science suggest what is needed is an international agreement on Wolbachia release, never mind it has already happened. It is known that mosquitoes don’t pull over for customs inspection. Where this bacterial intervention has been tried it has worked effectively but little thought has been given the transfer to other mosquito species. Can it happen? Nobody knows. While many might wish the world were without all of its mosquitoes (3,500 species), ticks and lice, we are to wonder what else is ecologically connected?

Perhaps that risk of horizontal transfer of Wolbachia is low or even non-existent. Until that question is resolved, this non-GMO cure for disease is a threat to Genesis no matter which species we decide are in the image of god. As for that, I believe durability counts.

Article Comments