Alert! There’s a dangerous new viral outbreak: Zika conspiracy theories

First published in the Guardian, 4 February 2016

Most conspiracy theories are harmless, but rumours that GM mosquitoes may inadvertently have caused Brazil’s epidemic could potentially cost lives

Conspiracy theories are not unlike viruses. Mostly they circulate harmlessly on the fringes of society, but every now and then a mutation for increased transmissibility can lead to a mainstream outbreak with seriously damaging consequences in the real world.

It’s ironic then that a conspiracy theory about a real virus – the Zika epidemic currently affecting Brazil – is currently exhibiting just such break-out behaviour. The first outing I can find came via an obscure post on Reddit on 25 January. The location should have rung warning bells: it was in a sub-Reddit category titled “conspiracies”, sandwiched between 9/11 truther rants, and was written anonymously under the giveaway pseudonym “redditsucksatbanning”.

It alleged that the UK-based small company Oxitec, which began releasing genetically engineered male-sterile mosquitoes in 2011 in north-eastern Brazil in order to combat dengue disease, may have inadvertently caused the Zika outbreak. Oxitec’s approach involves releasing non-biting males – which have been genetically engineered to carry a gene that is lethal to their offspring – to mate with wild females.

For the full story, please see the Guardian.


  1. Kirk Gothier

    Great, are they also demanding that nations spend billions attaching GMO “Right to Know” label bands to the legs mosquitoes!

  2. Mart Roben

    great article! loved it!

    little technical remark though: I believe that retroviruses can incorporate information from the host’s DNA, even though they’re RNA-based. Rous sarcoma virus did it, for example.

    1. Mark Lynas (Post author)

      Sounds doubtful… source?

    2. Scott

      All retroviruses reverse transcribe their RNA genome into cDNA before integration into the host DNA. Not doubtful at all. No more unlikely than any other virus. Now it would be a rare event, but with the number of viruses, bound to happen.

    3. Clyde Davies

      But the mosquito is a VECTOR not a HOST for the virus. The virus does not ‘infect’ the mosquito in the sense that it does its human host. malaria, on the other hand, *does* infect the vector as well.
      Therefore whatever the virus gets up to, it cannot pick up any modified genetic information from the vector, period.

    4. Scott

      In this case the mosquito being male, it is neither a host nor a vector.

    5. Mart Roben

      to Mark: here’s the best description I could find, of how a RNA virus would capture genetic information from DNA. (in the end, under “How?”)

      to Clyde: the virus DOES infect the mosquito. it’s just that it’s immune system is able to control the infection way better them the human immune system.

      to Scott: thank you for pointing out, that they’re male mosquitoes. I didn’t even think about it. kind of makes all the former discussion pointless. oh well, I guess we needed a biologist to set us right. 😀

    6. Scott

      Technically I am an agricultural researcher with a strong background in biology. In other words just a fancy name for a farmer, not a biologist. I have taken university level biology courses, but I am more hands on with my biology. Thanks for the compliment though. I do my best to keep up with modern biology, as most my agricultural research is in bioremediation of highly eroded and degraded farmland, with a specialty of AGW mitigation potential.

    7. Clyde Davies

      It’s not what I would term ‘infection’ in the respect that the virus does what it normally does, which is to commandeer the cellular machinery and reproduce.

      The fear that seems to being promulgated is that somehow Zika is integrating the GMO aspect of mosquitoes into its own genome and becoming a plague. This is nonsense.

    8. Mart Roben

      Scott, that’s a great area of research. in fact, I just finished Dave Montgomery’s “Dirt” last week. I had never thought about farmland erosion and all the problems it brings before that. also I’m not sure how biased and truthful the book is, but it certainly made me think.

      Clyde, I totally agree. GMO mosquitoes somehow making a virus more deadly is definitely nonsense. I just like to get into the deep technical nitty-gritty sometimes, just because it’s interesting.

    9. Scott

      You can be sure that Dave Montgomery’s “Dirt” is spot on and backed by loads of science. I highly recommend that book to anyone that discusses anything to do with agriculture.

      Where it takes people off guard is the POV. I mean we are all taught about the fall of the Roman empire. How barbarian hordes sacked Rome. How often the fact that both Rome and the Barbarians were short on food due to the failure of agriculture, and the barbarians actually sacking Rome because they were starving and simply wanted new land to settle and farm and Rome refused their request?

      It’s a POV that is factually and historically correct, but seldom presented in that way.

      As far as his predictions for modern agriculture and it’s capability to sustain modern civilization. The future is not written yet. I will say that if things don’t change, we have about 50-60 years left before agriculture collapses again assuming nothing changes. Obviously things will change though. So hard to predict. We have the agricultural technology to avoid the dramatic collapse. However, convincing people like Mark Lynas that the solution is already here is difficult because of his irrational bias against the “O” word.

      If we can’t convince people to actually make the change, then that’s it. in 50-60 years +/- civilization goes belly up. This time instead of regionally, it happens world wide.

    10. Mart Roben


      I’m planning to participate in an EU project about using cultivation techniques and biological methods for pest control and avoiding plant diseases. could your recommend any other great literature on that topic?

    11. Scott

      Wow, that’s a tough request. The field is advancing faster than the books can be published. If I post all the links to all the individual cultivation methods and pest control techniques, products, and cutting edge research, it will take forever to get through moderation on this blog. Plus bound to miss a lot anyway.

      There is a good data base for Rice production at Cornell university. Just google Cornell and system of rice intensification. Another area of promising research is pasture cropping. Dr Christine Jones set up a website called Amazing Carbon and the Australian Soil Carbon Accreditation Scheme, and has done a lot of research on pasture cropping. Also independent of the Aussies, the 12 Aprils method case study at the USDA is essentially the same as pasture cropping, except instead of grain, the crops are used as forage. Neither system requires any NPK ferts or pesticides and both have higher per acre yields than soil destroying conventional ag. Although there may be a transition period of 3-5 years +/- where yields are lower for a while as the soil recovers, depending how bad they were to begin with. Also there is a lot on soil health at the USDA-NRCS. Check out Gabe Brown’s presentation on soil health, he was part of one of those USDA case studies. Alan Savory wrote a great book called Holistic Management: A New Framework for Decision Making. Another book on that same topic is the old classic now republished called Grass Productivity by Andre Voisin

  3. Clyde Davies

    Quite. Therefore the idea that somehow GMO mosquitoes are to ‘blame’ is nonsense.

  4. John Fryer

    What about the simple notion that the transgenetic Mosquitoe were infected with this virus and maybe others but we didn’t notice until the outbreak arrived in Brazil?

    What viruses were tested for before release?

    1. Clyde Davies

      It’s a HUMAN VIRUS, you idiot.

  5. Clyde Davies

    Now,. all of a sudden, people will be asking why we don’t throw everything we’ve got at this disease…


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