Interesting discussion yesterday with authors of new pathogen discovery papers. I will try to write more about this later but am heading out the door so this Storify will have to do for now.
I truly love the work Bil Gates and the Gates Foundation have been doing over the last years. Absolutely wonderful stuff. But I have a bone (or perhaps a proboscis) to pick with this latest effort: The Deadliest Animal in the World | Bill Gates. The article discusses some “facts” about how many people different animals kill. And it uses this to argue for the need for more attention to be placed on mosquitoes. I agree with the conclusion. Mosquitoes are a big deal and need much much much more work and attention. But the data is just, well, not sound. Here is the problem I have
1. Many of the animals, including mosquitoes, are on the list are there because of the diseases they transmit. For example, dogs are there (for rabies), and tsetse flies are there for sleeping sickness. That is, they do not kill people directly but indirectly because of a disease they transmit.
2. If we follow that logic, which I am fine with, then we need to add a whole lot of deaths to the “human” column. After all, humans transmit a whole heck of a lot of diseases that kill humans. One source I found has the following #s
- HIV/AIDS: 1.78 million per year
- Tuberculosis: 1.34 million per year
- Flu: 250-500,000 per year
- HAIs: >100,000
- Syphilis: 100,000
- Measles: 600,000
and many many many more. The totals are probably greater than 5 million per year that are killed by infectious diseases where it was humans who transmitted the agent to other humans. Way more than the mosquitoes. Again, I agree with the conclusion. We need lots more attention on mosquitoes. But there seems little doubt to me which animal is most responsible for the spread of deadly pathogens to humans. And that animal is us.
Am kind of annoyed at the press coverage of this Gates – mosquitoes are the deadliest animal – concept. Here are some examples where people just ate up the idea without really asking any questions about its accuracy
- CNET: Here’s a photo of Bill Gates feeding the world’s deadliest animal
- Huffington Post: Mosquitoes Kill More Humans Than Any Other Animal Alive: Bill Gates Promotes Awareness Of Deadly Insect (INFOGRAPHIC)
- The BLAZE: The No. 1 Killer on This ‘Deadliest Animals’ Infographic Might Surprise You
- Daily Mail: Forget sharks – mosquitoes and SNAILS are the world’s deadliest animals: Graphic reveals the human race’s biggest killers
And many many more. It is a cute concept. And an important one. It just happens to be wrong.
UPDATE 5/4. Some Tweets of relevance
See Vox post: No, mosquitoes aren’t deadlier than humans
Also see these posts which run with the Gates meme
- The Dish: Mankind’s Deadliest Natural Enemy, Ctd
Just a quick post here. There is a new review/commentary that may be of interest: PLOS Pathogens: Insights from Genomics into Bacterial Pathogen Populations. By Daniel Wilson from the Wellcome Trust Centre at Oxford.
Full citation: Wilson DJ (2012) Insights from Genomics into Bacterial Pathogen Populations. PLoS Pathog 8(9): e1002874. doi:10.1371/journal.ppat.1002874
It is a nice and useful review …
John Tierney at the NY Times has a blog on a topic I wanted to introduce but I figured people might want to just check out his blog here.
In case people did not see it, scientists at Johns Hopkins just announced they had created a mosquito strain that is resistant to infection by Plasmodium and thus does not transit malaria (it is a mouse model so they do not have this for humans at this point). The key to their study is that their mosquito is healthy, whereas previous attempts to create mosquitoes that are resistant to malaria infection have been sick. Thus, the hope is that with healthy mosquitoes, they can be introduced into a population and the resistance gene will spread rather than be wiped out by negative selection.
I really love this research area because it truly is an applied use of evolutionary biology and population genetics. If you want some gene (natural or unnatural) to spread through the mosquitoes of the world, you have to understand evolution in general and for mosquitoes in particular. Plus, there are many possible ways to do this — and it is interesting to see the research in different ways. For example, there are some projects to try to introduce particular Wolbachia strains into mosquito populations. Wolbachia would serve as a sort of birth control for mosquitoes.
The most problemmatic part of the current study unfortunately is not the science per se. It relates to the fact that the way they made the mosquitoes resistant was through genetic engineering, not breeding. And such a GMO mosquito carries all the same fears and issues as GMO foods. The key question is – suppose they can create a version of mosquito that will do the same thing for human malaria – should such GMO mosquitoes be released? And if they are released, will Europe and Asia all of a sudden create an uproar? And if you were offered to bowls of soup, one that a non GMO mosquito was in and one that the GMO was in, which would you eat?