Humans found the first instance of the Zika virus in Uganda's Zika Forest in 1947. But, notably, the original Zika carrier wasn't a person — it was a rhesus monkey. Since then, scientists have found the virus in all sorts of primates, including capuchin monkeys in Zika-affected towns in Brazil this year.
So, as Zika-carrying Aedes aegypti mosquitoes drift up the Florida peninsula, PETA officials are worried about what might happen if the virus reaches monkey-breeding farms in Hendry County.
"There are thousands of monkeys kept in open-air facilities," PETA's senior lab oversight specialist, Alka Chandna, tells New Times. "The virus can spread quickly. The monkey facilities then become incubators for the virus."
That's why PETA will protest in Wynwood today. The demonstrators will wear "pregnant" costumes on the corner of NW 26th Street and NW Second Avenue at noon to raise awareness about the monkey-breeding groups.
The group started sounding the alarm about the monkey-Zika link in February, when microcephaly cases began to sweep across South America. Back then, PETA's warnings were hypothetical, and some critics of the group slammed the message as a cheap way to piggyback off a human tragedy to shut down animal-breeding facilities.
But PETA says the concern is real. Because the virus is "enzootic" and can be passed from mosquito to primate, Chandna says that if Zika sweeps into Hendry County's monkey farms, the virus could find a permanent "storage facility" to roost. The state's mosquito-control efforts could be rendered moot if a host of infected monkeys remained in the state.
"The public education Miami has done has been admirable," she says. "The videos they’ve produced, getting teams of people tested for Zika virus, all of it is very admirable. But there's an elephant in the room, and it's the thousands of monkeys that have to be addressed."
In this case, PETA's concerns do have some scientific backing. In February, the U.S. National Academy of Sciences convened a Zika workshop in Washington, D.C., where scientists warned that the virus could spread to primates. Two researchers — one from Kansas State University and another from the University of California-Davis — warned that if the virus develops a persistent "enzootic cycle" between mosquitoes and American primates, it could have a "long-term impact on human disease."
The farms targeted by PETA, such as the Immokalee-based Primate Products, largely raise monkeys to be used in animal testing around the area. (In an ironic twist, scientists are testing Zika vaccines in monkeys as you read this.) The facilities claim they're doing all they can to prevent Zika.
Via email, Primate Products president Thomas Rowell, a veterinarian, declined to comment and instead referred New Times to a Zika statement the group posted online in February, months before local Zika transmissions began. The statement does say the group's monkeys could, theoretically, get exposed to the virus.
"It is also important to note that if Zika virus was spreading in people in areas where primates are housed outdoors, the animals could be infected with the virus," the statement reads. "In this case, organizations with outdoor housing would work with state and local authorities to develop a mosquito surveillance and management program at the facility to prevent the possible spread of Zika virus."
Primate Products also argues that its monkeys could become integral to the battle against the virus.
"Research utilizing primates and other animal models will be necessary for defining and understanding the pathogenesis of the virus, for establishing better diagnostics for detecting infection, and in vaccine development for disease prevention," the group says.
But PETA says vaccine testing isn't a good enough reason to allow the facilities to continue operating in Florida. Chandna, who holds a PhD in mathematics, says if the monkeys are not moved soon, the virus could develop permanently in Hendry County.
"The monkeys are near swamps," she says, adding that a PETA operative recently documented "standing water and sewage backups" nearby.
"They're the sort of conditions that would be ripe for mosquito-breeding," Chandna says. "They're sitting ducks if they're bitten."