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Will the Zika Virus Outbreak Change Minds About GMOs?

The Zika virus outbreak in the Americas hits on the things that risk-perception researchers know worry people most. Will that be enough to overcome people's fears about genetically modified mosquitoes?
A city worker fumigates in an effort to eradicate the mosquitos that transmit the Zika virus on February 2, 2016, in Recife, Brazil. (Photo: Mario Tama/Getty Images)

A city worker fumigates in an effort to eradicate the mosquitos that transmit the Zika virus on February 2, 2016, in Recife, Brazil. (Photo: Mario Tama/Getty Images)

It's official: The World Health Organization has declared the Zika virus outbreak in Central and South America a global health emergency. This is the first time the WHO has made such a designation since the 2014 Ebola outbreak in West Africa. Zika virus infections most commonly give people regular, flu-like symptoms—no big deal—but scientists also think the virus may cause a birth defect called microcephaly that's associated with developmental delays. The WHO declaration frees up research and aid to prevent the spread of the virus, which has no vaccine or cure.

One potential, flashy solution for slowing Zika's spread: releasing genetically modified mosquitoes designed to cause a population crash in Aedes aegypti mosquitoes, the species that carries Zika. For now, mosquito control is the only way to manage the Zika virus. (Besides genetic engineering, cities may also control mosquitoes by eliminating standing water, or with insecticides.) The company that makes the engineered mosquitoes, the United Kingdom-based Oxitec, is expanding its factories and release programs in Brazil, which has been hit hardest by Zika infections, NPR reports. Meanwhile, Oxitec has applied for approval to release genetically engineered mosquitoes in the Florida Keys, Bloomberg reports.

The news made us wonder whether the Zika virus could change the conversation around genetically modified organisms, or GMOs. GMOs are a controversial issue, with some folks in deep opposition to their development and use. Yet the Zika outbreak in the Americas is extraordinary in many ways. "It's new, it's scary, it involves babies," says Andrew Maynard, a researcher at Arizona State University who studies how people evaluate risk. "It hits on the key things that get people worried." Will that be enough to turn the tide among anti-GMO folks?

Risk-evaluation researchers say predicting the response to a GMO is a tough task, but a few ideas can help us understand how the public might react to the use of genetically modified mosquitos during this Zika outbreak.

"We're setting up a situation where people are going to be facing cognitive dissonance," says Brian Zikmund-Fisher, a researcher at the University of Michigan who studies how people make health decisions. On the one hand, the public is going to want the Zika outbreak brought under control; on the other, some folks are not going to be happy seeing genetically modified mosquitoes released in their towns. Cognitive dissonance demands resolution, and we can expect to see people resolve their dissonance in one of several ways, ranging from changing their minds about GMOs altogether to discounting the effectiveness of genetically modified mosquitoes. There's no empirical evidence to say which option people are most likely to choose, Zikmund-Fisher says.

We've seen this cognitive dissonance at play before with other GMO crops. The controversy around "golden rice," which is engineered to make vitamin A, is a great example. The rice's developers meant it to be a humanitarian product, for children in regions that often suffer from vitamin A deficiency, which can cause blindness. Those who oppose golden rice have discounted its efficacy because it doesn't provide 100 percent of a person's daily vitamin A, and have instead advocated for "third option" alternatives, such as fortifying rice and encouraging families to grow home gardens with vitamin A-rich foods.

We should take a moment here to say that everyone, including anti- and pro-GMO activists, are prone to the same mental shortcut that can prevent them from assessing risks and benefits fairly. Researchers call it the affect heuristic. "What that means for most people is that anything that feels like it has lots of benefit also feels like it has low risk, and vice versa," Zigmund-Fisher says.

The wise way to think about GMOs is to consider each new organism on its own. The risks of genetically modified mosquitoes, rice, corn, and salmon are all different. But many people tend to lump GMOs together, and to think of them as generally risky or helpful. Then people rely on their emotions to make what is otherwise a pretty complicated calculation. They'll do that for how they see the risk of Zika virus too.