I remember sitting in a classroom during a summer course on synthetic biology and questioning just how much of this was science fiction and how much was interesting research that would never make it out of Nature (the journal) and into, well, nature. The day where something as odd as the glow-in-the-dark e coli they kept showing us would be released into the wild seemed so far away, and much more likely to be the premise of the next dystopian movie rather than a well-understood and even a widely-approved piece of applied science.
That’s when the teacher brought up Oxitec.
By then, the company had been around for around 10 years, and had already accomplished something amazing: their transgenic Aedes aegypti mosquitoes had been released in Brazil, and had driven down the population of this multi-disease vector by 80 to 95%. Their “living insecticide” was not only a brilliant example of applied synthetic biology, it also happened to be one of the most interesting study cases of scientific communication of the last few years. After all – who knew a jingle played from a van would be the best way to let people know a GMO mosquito would be released in their area so that they’d go “cool, okay”?
Yes, Oxitec did that.
But how, exactly?
That’s what I was dying to ask Hadyn Parry, Oxitec’s CEO from 2008 to 2017 and now mother company Intrexon’s VP of Corporate Development, and a personal hero since that class I took back in 2012. With years of industry experience in Zeneca and Syngenta and an infectious enthusiasm for science, Hadyn is surprisingly approachable and a delight to chat with, and humors me for the good part of an hour answering questions on Oxitec’s origin, the their communication strategy, and of course, the one question I, a regionalist at heart, ask everyone who lists English as their native language: Why Latin America?
LOCAL PLAYERS FOR LOCAL IMPACT
Unless you spent most of the past two years under a rock (in which case I sincerely congratulate you on your life choices), you might remember a little crisis called Zika. The 2015-2016 Zika virus epidemic caused enough panic to establish flying bans, rekindle civil upraising and region-wide warnings to delay pregnancy in fear of the crisis.
Brazil might seem like an obvious choice if any company decided to start targeting Zika two years ago, but Oxitec’s presence in the country had already been established years prior, with a fairly similar situation: Brazil’s ongoing Dengue crisis.
The company had set out to create a genetically modified, self-limited mosquito that would allow them to control the population of Aedes Aegypti. Their modified males are released into the wild where they mate with healthy females, and the generated offspring inherits the self-limiting trait, dying before reaching adulthood.
The target mosquito species is spread everywhere, but Oxitec focused on Brazil because it was a key country: it had one of the highest rates of dengue transition, reaching 1 million cases yearly. Later, the chikunguya outbreak of 2013-2014 and the recent Zika crisis added multiplicity for the same species.
It was, in Hadyn’s words, “A large country with a big, unmet need.” It also happened to be a country the British biotech shared no cultural links with – not even a language. They could have done “the foreigner thing”, which is a classic in Latin America: An English-speaking Expert with a capital E arriving and determining what is best for you, without thinking of actually asking what you need or even talking to you in some cases. Instead, the root of Oxitec’s successful settling in Brazil laid in close collaboration.
Here, Hadyn says, support from the British embassy was key. They contacted Oxitec with Brazil’s Ministry of Health and Ministry of Science (are you hearing this, Chile? When are we getting ours?) and even discussed the early stage of the tech with the Brazilian government. They managed to team up with University of Sao Paulo and local company Moscamed – a specialist insect company that was already proficient in breeding and deploying insects. The fit was perfect enough for Moscamed to run Oxitec’s initial trials. The support was there, the tech and the expertise as well. Now there was just one more thing to solve: How do you tell somebody you’re releasing genetically modified organisms in their backyard?
THE MOSQUITO JINGLE
I assumed this was something Oxitec managed centrally with closely-cut press releases and a big name PR firm looking over their shoulders, so Hadyn’s answer comes completely out of left field for me.
“Up in the north of Brazil, in particular in the community we were working in, Itaberaba, people don’t tend to use television or written media much; it’s normally more radio as the main means of communication. But they do have these vans, these cars that go around, which often people use for advertising soap powders or attracting people towards events. So we used those, with a little jingle, a little song on releasing the mosquito.”
I stop and ask him if he’s being serious, to which I receive an affirmative. “If you drive a car down the street with a jingle saying “we’re releasing a mosquito, come to this meeting to find out more”, that is a great way of grabbing people’s attention!”
Let that sink in for a little bit. They not only decided yes, we are going to tell absolutely everyone what we are doing, but also had enough awareness to find the right channel to communicate to the specific community, and they came up with… a jingle.
Literally, a jingle.
Where some companies would panic and shush you if you so much as utter the G-word, Oxitec decided to blast GMO mosquito jams.
“In different communities, you would use different media to be able to communicate.” Hadyn points out. “You have to really work with the community and see what works in their setting.”
And Oxitec’s drive in making sure the community is engaged and cognizant of what’s happening around it is clear.
“What we’ve always been very keen on is making sure that we’re very open and transparent and easy to communicate as a company” Hadyn continues. “After all, you are doing something that’s a world’s first, and therefore you need to be able to reach out into the community, and explain what you’re doing.”
“It’s the sort of activity where you need to have a high level of public awareness. If you’re carrying out public health projects you do talk to a lot of people – you need very widespread communication. Communications is in the core of biology engineering – it’s absolutely critical, and often companies and academics make it far too complicated.”
So how do you communicate properly, without overcomplicating things Newton style? Hadyn’s advice is to focus on the need of the people you need to communicate with. “You can’t expect members of the public all to be expert biologists. You have to focus on what (your work) means to them – to the problems they are facing.” It’s also about how the message is worded. “If you’re too simplistic, you will receive criticism for being patronizing. If you’re too complicated, people won’t understand you.”
And this is not just about having one person within your group/company/entity who is capable of speaking clearly. Another key point in communication? Everyone should be able to do it.
THE HATCHET JOB
Hadyn explains it this way: “We made sure that everyone going into the field – in this case, driving the mosquito van and going into town – had enough information to communicate what we were doing. You can’t stop the public asking the people on the street what they’re doing, and equally, if there’s someone on the street releasing mosquitoes and somebody comes and asks them “what are you doing” and they answer “you have to ask somebody else”, that’s not a good answer! You have to train everybody so that you can communicate at all levels and on the spot”.
The one problem with this though, is that with this policy the field manager ended up spending more time talking to journalists than actually doing the trials. They also found out that having journalists come in and out of their premises is very disruptive (who would have thought that we writers were a nosy and noisy bunch) but they couldn’t just stop talking to them. So instead of shutting them down, they decided to have “press days” where they would show journalists around show it around – but since all press wants an exclusive it is quite a challenge. Their main policy? To never, and I mean NEVER turn down an interview.
This has allowed the appearance of some rather…curious cases.
“We’ve had some really strange requests” laughs Hadyn. “For example, a journalist that told me “My editor wants me to do a hatchet job on you”. It was quite shocking!” Hadyn recounts that when he told him that he could still come and interview him, the journalist bluntly said “Look, I’m gonna come to do an interview that will show you in a bad light. Do you still want me to come?”
Oxitec’s response? “Yeah, of course. Because if you don’t come, you’re going to write a bad article and it will be wholly incorrect. If you do come, at least you will understand what we’re doing!”
So what happened?
Hadyn lets out a laugh “He actually produced a very favorable article, and of course, his editor never ran it!”
It seems that transparency pays off, and they do stick to it: I experience it firsthand when I ask them whether they’d like to review this piece before publication. “You write what you want”, Hadyn tells me, which, wow. That is placing a LOT of trust in the writers – even I ask people to send over their drafts if they have included me in any sort of piece, and my what I do is nowhere near as polemic as releasing GMO mosquitoes in vulnerable communities.
“I do think it’s part of this whole transparency argument.” Punctuates Hadyn. “If you’re difficult to deal with, journalists will tend to shy away – and in the end, this is all about getting the story in the public domain, it’s about allowing journalists to come up with their own angles, strategies, comparisons, and then playing our part to fit into that.
“The more stories you get, the more coverage, the broader the acceptability of the technology and the understanding of what you’re doing.”
We’re at a weird point in time where communication between scientists and, well, everyone else, seems strained. We are assaulted with baseless declarations and millions of supporters behind statements that might as well have started as a facebook meme, and most scientists and biotech companies’ response has been to further retreat into themselves and become even more secretive.
Which is why seeing an example like Oxitec’s is so encouraging. It goes to show that disruptive science, the same one that can seem petrifying and world-shattering with the wrong words and the wrong attitude; can be presented, with all its complexity and implications, as the impactful solution that it really is, if only we remember to actually think about it. Our science is as it will be perceived, and knowing how to frame it needs to be considered – maybe even as much as the science itself.