In the meantime, here are our best ideas for fighting Zika
That brings us back to the current Zika crisis. On this, the experts I spoke to were mostly in agreement on what should be done.
First, public education. People need to be aware of A. aegypti and its horrible ways and know how to combat it. Wear protective clothing, use insect repellents, and put up screens on windows and doors. Get rid of anything that might create a pool of standing water outside, whether a bucket or Styrofoam cup or whatever else.
The next step would be for governments to launch mosquito control campaigns in earnest. That means treating certain bodies of water with larvicide and organizing cleanup crews to get rid of trash and old tires and other places where water can pool. (See more details here.)
"You have to go back to past successes," says Peter Hotez, dean of the National School of Tropical Medicine at the Baylor College of Medicine. "In the 1950s, we eradicated Aedes through brute force — insecticides, drainage control. The problem is that these campaigns are labor-intensive, they're not cheap, and they're difficult to sustain." Once an outbreak fades, governments lose the political will and the mosquitoes return stronger than ever.
Thomas Scott of UC Davis cautions, however, that it may be tricky to replicate past eradication campaigns. The man who led those earlier mosquito wars, Fred Soper, worked closely with authoritarian governments in Latin America to force inspectors into every home and inspect for breeding sites. That heavy-handedness is harder to pull off in today's democracies. "Plus, Soper didn't have to deal with massive cities of 8 to 10 million people, or all the plastic trash we have now," Scott notes. "So we're dealing with things he didn't have to deal with."
Another key difference: In the 1950s and '60s, countries were spraying lots of DDT, a cheap insecticide that lingered on surfaces for months, making it particularly effective at killing insects. But in the years since, many Aedes mosquitoes have developed resistance to DDT, making the pesticide a less suitable option today. (DDT can also kill birds and other wildlife, which is why the US banned it in 1972.)
Ultimately, beating back Zika is going to be incredibly arduous. "People are reluctant to accept that there is no magic bullet," concludes Uriel Kitron of Emory University. "It's a tedious process, it involves a lot of commitment, it involves community participation."
Sadly, that stuff isn't nearly as fun to write about as GM mosquitoes or futuristic gene drives. But for now, it's the best we've got.