CDC Director: Zika "Not Controllable With Current Technologies," Will Become Endemic

The Atlantic held a conference in Miami this week. In addition to being an excuse for D.C. policy wonks to hang out in South Beach, the event included a candid interview with Dr. Thomas Frieden, the director of the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Frieden happens to be the guy in charge of eradicating the Zika virus from the United States.

During yesterday's interview, Jeffrey Goldberg, the magazine's executive editor, pressed Frieden on whether he thought he had the virus under control. Frieden's response was candid — and, for Miamians, pretty jarring.

"Here's the plain truth," he said. "Zika, and other diseases spread by Aedes aegypti, are really not controllable with current technologies. So we will see this become endemic in the hemisphere."

Before anyone throws their clothes in a bag and heads for Greenland, it's worth unpacking exactly what Frieden meant: He wasn't specifically saying Zika will never leave Miami. Rather, he said that without new technologies, pockets of active transmission will pop up around the nation until either a Zika vaccine is produced or we eradicate the Aedes aegpyti mosquito from America. 

Frieden stressed that aerial spraying for mosquitoes — using a combination of the organic larvicide Bti and the organophosphate pesticide naled, which some scientists say is harmful to humans — works to eradicate the virus once local transmission is found. But until new technologies exist, pest-control directors will be forced to play whack-a-mosquito as transmission pockets pop up.

Though Miami-Dade County said its spraying regimen worked in Wynwood, scientists have warned that the same technique will not work in Miami Beach, where tall buildings and strong ocean breezes disrupt the spraying patterns. Though the county is adamant that aerial naled spraying is vital to fight the virus, active transmission is ongoing in Miami Beach. The Florida Department of Health reported two new, locally acquired Zika cases yesterday. One was linked to Miami Beach.

Last week, the CDC warned any pregnant women who have visited Miami to get a Zika test.

Frieden said he was an ardent believer in genetically modifying Aedes aegpyti to wipe that species from the planet.

"They are an invasive species," he said, noting that American bird and bat populations might take a small hit without Aedes aegpyti bugs around, but overall, there are tons of other mosquitoes to take that species' place. "Malaria still kills 400,000 per year. Zika is going to cause birth defects and tremendous disruption in travel plans and personal plans for years to come. If we can get rid of this mosquito, I'd be very happy."

He did, however, say technology is not yet able to eradicate the species without causing collateral damage to the environment. He also said a vaccine is not likely to be available for another few years. (Frieden said the CDC also looked into New Times' silly proposal to bring mosquito-eating bats to Miami-Dade, but concluded the bats wouldn't eat enough mosquitoes to eradicate the virus.)

But Frieden couldn't promise that Zika — a virus he said has "surprised" disease-control experts — will ever leave Miami.

"What we anticipate will happen is that this season will calm down within the continental United States," he said. "We hope that Miami-Dade will stop having cases, but we can't promise that. Even if they do everything right, there could be cases for the winter." He reiterated later: "We will see parts of the hemisphere becoming endemic, which means it comes back every year."

The best Zika defense, he said, is to invest in proactive public-health measures. "It pays off," he said.
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Jerry Iannelli is a former staff writer for Miami New Times from 2015 to March 2020. He graduated with honors from Temple University. He then earned a master's degree in journalism from Columbia University.