The Science, Space, & Technology committee held a hearing this Wednesday titled the Science of Zika: The DNA of an Epidemic where they covered the science behind the Zika epidemics potential spread to the continental United States.
For those unfamiliar, congressional hearings are meetings where experts are invited by the committee to answer questions about the hearing's subject matter. Since nowadays all of this can be done more effectively via email, they have become a glorified way for politicians on both sides of the aisle to promote their party's issue of the day.
# 5 Summer is Coming!
One thing everyone made perfectly clear was that the Aedes aegypti mosquito's range would expand into the continental United States this summer. Politicians and witnesses referenced this fact so often that I thought I was watching an alternative version of Game of Thrones where Jon Snow used his tourettes to warn against Daenerys Targaryen and her dragons.
At one point Congresswoman Zoe Lofgren of California asked the witnesses if anyone thought transmission rates for Zika wouldn't increase as summer approached. There was no response to this, of course. The question being as absurdly obvious as it was rhetorical.
The panel of witnesses were keen to remind the committee that seasonal differences have been the number one reason for the continental United States low rate of transmission. The warmer U.S. territories already reporting 800 non-travel related cases.
# 4 Zika is Scarier than We Thought
There are several facts about both the Zika virus and the Aedes aegypti mosquito that have become prolific at this point. It's well-known that the CDC has confirmed a connection between Zika and microcephaly, a congenital birth disorder that causes children to be born with abnormally small heads. It's also pretty much established that Zika can cause Guillain Barre Syndrome - an autoimmune disease attacking the peripheral nervous system in both children and adults.
Something not discussed too often are the particulars of the Aedes aegypti mosquito's biology and reproduction cycle. The Aedes aegypti mosquito is apparently a day biter, meaning that it feeds during the morning and afternoon. This is typically when human beings are most on-the-go, so things like beds nets are completely inadequate in halting the spread of the disease.
It also doesn't take a lot of water for the mosquito to go through its entire life cycle. Witness Steven Presley claiming that the mosquito only needs water the size of a standard tuna can to grow to maturity.
The scariest thing, however, is new evidence suggesting females might be able to transfer the virus to their eggs, shortening the incubation period for the Zika virus in a particular Aedes aegypti community, and allowing winter-weather mosquito eggs to begin the infection anew next summer.
# 3 We are not Prepared!
The word reactive was thrown around a lot during this hearing.
Republicans and Democrats may not agree on much, but both sides of the committee thought the United States was unprepared to handle the epidemic.
Witness Steven Presley, Department of Environmental Toxicology at Texas Tech University, asserted that over 200 counties in Texas had not tested their mosquito populations in the last two years.
Dr. Kacey Ernst, Associate Professor of Epidemiology and Biostatistics at the University of Arizona, estimated that 80 to 90% of jurisdictions within the Aedes aegypti mosquito's range did not have the proper trackers in place to map the mosquito's movements.
When asked by multiple committee members what could be done to make the United States more proactive in this area, the overwhelming answer was greater investment. The size of that, ehem, investment was largely ignored. The one notable exception being Democrat Eric Swalwell of California who flat out asked the panel whether or not they agreed with the President's request for $1.9 billion in emergency funding, and then proposed the creation of a new agency for tracking diseases. A Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, if you will.
The question was deflected, but not before Steven Presley asserted the superiority of the local government, because, you know, Texas.
# 2 Global Warming was the Giant Polar Bear in the Room
Climate change was mentioned only two times during the entire hearing. Once by Democrat Eddie Bernice Johnson of Texas, who suggested in her opening speech that it might have played a role. The other instance by witness Steven Presley who claimed that the global uptake in Zika could be the result of "increased travel, climate change, or whatever." He's super serial you, guys.
While it was mentioned repeatedly that the spread of Zika was the result of several factors - we have known about Zika since the 1940s and it has not significantly mutated since then - those factors were only briefly alluded to.
# 1 GOP Blames Obama and FDA
Chairman Lamar Smith, sidestepped the issue of the House not adequately funding the Zika epidemic, and began the hearing by criticizing the administration's alleged refusal to issue a travel advisory warning for the countries of Brazil and Columbia.
During his question time he asked the witnesses whether or not a ban should be issued, though only witness Steven Presley answered the question in the affirmative.
The Republican side then toted the benefits of witness Hadyn Parry's product. Parry is Chief Executive Officer at Oxitec, and his company has genetically modified male Aedes aegypti mosquito's to interfere with the breeding of females. Parry noted widespread success in Brazil, the very same place Lamar Smith doesn't want Americans to travel to, but the product has not yet received FDA approval.
The GOP preceded to lambast the FDA for "holding up" this important product, as if the FDA were governed by laws and procedures wholly separate from the ones made by Congress. The GOP will undoubtedly use this a pretext to lessen pesticide regulations, so keep an eye out for "FDA Reform" in the days and weeks to come.