Passport

Anti-Zika Condoms Unlikely To Stop the Olympian Spread of Zika

A condom company announced that it will provide anti-Zika condoms to Australian Olympic athletes.

Athletes compete during the Ibero American Athletics Championships men's 5000 meters final race, a test event for Rio 2016 Olympic Games at the Olympic Stadium in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil on May 16, 2016.  / AFP / YASUYOSHI CHIBA        (Photo credit should read YASUYOSHI CHIBA/AFP/Getty Images)
Athletes compete during the Ibero American Athletics Championships men's 5000 meters final race, a test event for Rio 2016 Olympic Games at the Olympic Stadium in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil on May 16, 2016. / AFP / YASUYOSHI CHIBA (Photo credit should read YASUYOSHI CHIBA/AFP/Getty Images)

Like the lighting of the torch in Greece and the gaudy opening ceremonies, breathless news reports about athletes’ sexual debauchery in the Olympic Village have become a time-honored part of the spectacle that is the Olympics. Fears that athletes and spectators could return home with the Zika virus are taking away a bit of the fun, however. One scientist has even called for the whole event to be canceled.

But at least two companies are prepared to make lemonade out of Zika-infested lemons. On Monday, Starpharma, a pharmaceutical company, and Ansell Limited, a condom maker, announced that they would provide antiviral condoms to the Australian Olympics team.

What is an antiviral condom?

According to a statement from the companies, the lubricant on the condom — which they’re calling VivaGel — provides “near-complete antiviral protection against Zika virus in laboratory studies.”

That’s surprising, given that there is no known antiviral treatment for Zika.

“That sounds to me like an irrelevant health claim,” Amir Attaran, a biologist and lawyer at the University of Ottawa who recently argued for canceling the 2016 Rio Olympics, told Foreign Policy in a phone interview.

There are two obvious problems with using condoms to stop the spread of Zika. One is that mosquitoes are still the primary vehicle by which the virus is spread in Rio de Janeiro, where the 2016 Summer Olympics are to be held. The other is that while it’s known that Zika can be spread sexually through semen, the science is still out on other bodily fluids.

“The large scale transmission that you’re seeing in Brazil could not happen through sex alone,” said Attaran.

And that’s part of the problem, since people are far easier to control than insects. Public health authorities around the world worry about the Brazilian strain taking hold in places like Africa and India, where mosquito infestation is difficult to control.

“If that Brazilian strain makes it back to Africa, then obviously it can do quite a lot because Africa’s big teaming cities are even more squalid than Rio,” said Attaran.

The virus has been linked both to microcephaly in newborns and Guillain-Barré, a condition that causes paralysis, in adults.

In cold countries like Attaran’s native Canada, however, the main mode of transmission may be through sexual activity, in which case condoms are definitely a good idea.

“The good thing is that people are far less promiscuous than mosquitoes,” said Attaran.

Photo credit: YASUYOSHI CHIBA/AFP/Getty Images

Megan Alpert is a fellow at Foreign Policy. Her previous bylines have included The Guardian, Guernica Daily, and Earth Island Journal. Twitter: @megan_alpert
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