Amid Zika, Funding for Insecticides Gets Boost, Right? Wrong.

The mosquito-borne Zika virus, widely believed to cause serious birth defects and possibly even nerve damage, is rapidly spreading throughout the Americas, with public health officials believing it’s only a matter of time before it hits the continental U.S.

So then why, at the beginning of this year, did the Environmental Protection Agency order one of the most widely used mosquito-killing insecticides to be pulled from the shelves?

The answer is… well, complicated. But it involves the increasing cost of meeting EPA safety standards, the economics of the pesticide industry, and a decision made in 2010 that turned out to have very unfortunate timing. (See graphic below)

resized zika graphic

This situation is very similar to the problem in the pharmaceutical industry of so-called “orphan drugs”—medicines for diseases that are so rare that there's little to no economic incentive for private companies to keep making them, or to even develop them in the first place.

There’s actually a federal program that was created to address this very problem—it provides funding to companies that make “public health pesticides” with little revenue-generating potential to conduct the EPA-mandated toxicity studies needed to keep these chemicals on the market.

But while lawmakers in Congress created this program in the 1990s, they never followed through and allocated funding to it. And even this year, amid the growing Zika outbreak, it’s unclear whether congressional appropriators—or even the Obama administration itself—consider it a priority.

Bloomberg BNA subscribers can read more about federal funding (or lack thereof) for mosquito-control insecticides in a special report I wrote.