As Latin America scrambles to help explain the Zika pandemic that has affected over a million people in the Western Hemisphere so far, conspiracy theories pushed by Russia and anti-Western outlets have begun to gather steam in social media and alternative news outlets.
The New York Times reports that multiple conspiracy theories blaming Western scientific advances for Zika – and the thousands of cases of microcephaly in Brazilian infants – have begun to grow in popularity. The lesser of these theories arose in Argentina, where a group of doctors alleged that Zika is no threat and that Brazil’s microcephaly cases are the product of widespread use of the larvicide pyriproxyfen. The theory is a tempting explanation, as the Zika virus does not cause any symptoms in 80 percent of its patients and, in the few cases where it does, causes only mild symptoms. Zika has become a threat almost exclusively to pregnant mothers, as it appears to cause the microcephaly defect in the unborn.
Doctors have warned, however, that it may also trigger Guillain-Barré syndrome in adults, a neurological condition in which the immune system attacks the nerves and causes severe pain, paralysis, and death. The link between Zika and Guillain-Barré remains unclear.
Both Brazilian authorities and the World Health Organization immediately rejected the claim that pyriproxyfen, and not Zika, is responsible for Brazil’s more than 4,000 microcephaly cases. “Unlike the relationship between the Zika virus and microcephaly, which has had its confirmation attested in tests that indicated the presence of the virus in samples of blood, tissue and amniotic fluid, the association between the use of pyriproxyfen and microcephaly has no scientific basis,” the Brazilian Health Ministry confirmed in a statement.
With Zika back to being the suspected culprit, conspiracy theorists have begun to blame Western science for allegedly increasing Brazil’s mosquito population, making it easier for Zika to spread. The New York Times notes that the most popular conspiracy theory surrounding Zika is that the British corporation Oxitec spread Zika through genetically modified Aedes aegypti mosquitos, the species that carries the virus.
These mosquitos also carry dengue, Chikungunya virus, and yellow fever, making them the subject of a 2012 Oxitec experiment in which Aedes aegypti males were rendered sterile and their lifespans decreased significantly. Flooding the local mosquito population with these males forced viable mates out of the competition for females; the females would then have larvae with extremely short lifespans. Some, the newspaper notes, “see it as a plot by global elites to depopulate the earth and install a ‘one-world government.'” The Times notes that “American actor Mark Ruffalo was among those sounding the alarm, with a post on Monday that was shared nearly 500 times.”
Much of the conversation blaming Oxitec comes from Russia. Propaganda outlet Russia Today published a story this month claiming that some experts are “raising questions” about the Oxitec experiment, likening the experiment to “the plot of a Hollywood blockbuster.” “At the time, concerns were raised about the release of GMMs without further studies into possible side effects,” RT says of the project, citing a British drama as evidence that “suggests it could be a deliberate plan to reduce the global population.”
The theory that the West is behind the Zika epidemic has not only hit Russian propaganda publications. Russian officials have begun suggesting that the United States created the Zika virus to use as a population control method. “Why am I still worried about the Abkhazian coast, which houses the mosquito?… somewhere the 100 kilometers (62 miles) from the place where this mosquito lives today is a military microbiology laboratory of the United States Army,” Gennady Onishchenko, Russia’s former chief sanitary doctor, said in an interview this week. “The presence of American laboratories and the presence of the mosquito, I am concerned about in terms of deliberate interference in the natural course of epidemic process.” The scientific facility Onishchenko refers to is run by the Georgian government, though it was built by the U.S. Army, and there is no evidence of Zika-related projects underway there.
Such theories have spread to Portuguese-language media and, of course, English-language outlets like Infowars, which ran a headline calling Zika a “bioweapon” and implicating Microsoft CEO Bill Gates in the epidemic.
Contrary to online theories, the Oxitec experiment appears to have succeeded in the region of Brazil where it took place. “Data collected by the city and Oxitec suggest the program has decreased the number of wild mosquitoes by more than 80 percent in the treated neighborhoods,” the MIT Technology Review reports. The reduction in mosquito population in two neighborhoods reduced the number of cases of dengue “from 133 in a year to only one.”
The World Health Organization (WHO) endorsed the Oxitec experiment and others like it this week.
The conspiracy theories surrounding Zika recall those spreading in 2014 about the Ebola outbreak in West Africa. There, the Liberian Observer, one of the nation’s largest newspapers, ran a column claiming that the United States government had manufactured Ebola and the HIV as “products of the cold war,” citing “reports” and a science fiction novel. This time around, Chris Brown became the celebrity to claim Ebola was a “form of population control,” the result of such hysteria being widespread attacks on Western medical volunteers working to save Ebola patients.
Brazil has so far recorded over 4,000 cases of microcephaly, with the few infants undergoing testing confirmed to have been carrying Ebola before their deaths. Brazil remains the only country in the region with significant numbers of suspected Ebola cases to also see a surge in microcephaly cases.