Factories are churning out bug spray around the clock as fears of the mosquito-borne Zika virus take hold. Demand has tripled in Brazil, where the virus is already entrenched, and has doubled in the U.S., even though no mosquito-transmitted cases have been recorded in the country.
The mere anticipation of a Zika epidemic has sparked a boom in the bug-repellent industry.
Mosquito Joe franchises report an increase in business of 50 percent.
“Clearly, part of it is Zika,” said company CEO Kevin Wilson.
Health officials say the mysterious virus is causing births of babies with abnormally small heads, a condition known as microcephaly, in Brazil and other Latin American countries. It also has been tied to a series of birth defects, a syndrome that can lead to paralysis, and a Puerto Rican man’s death from the severe loss of blood platelets.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has recorded 426 travel-related Zika cases in U.S. states and the District of Columbia, including a handful through sexual transmission.
The virus is expected to puncture the mainland once temperatures rise, allowing mosquito populations to flourish.
Pregnant women are being warned against travel to Latin America, and people returning are being urged to use birth control.
It is unclear whether and when Zika will start circulating in the U.S. through mosquitoes, as it does south of the border, but companies that make bugs their business say they won’t be caught off guard.
“Nobody likes to benefit from a crisis, but the other way of looking at it is we’re here to help with this crisis,” Mr. Wilson said.
S.C. Johnson, the company that makes Off insect repellent, decided in February to hire additional staff and boost its production to maximum capacity, “working 24/7,” to meet anticipated demand.
The Wisconsin Pharmacal Co. is dispatching its Coleman brand insect repellent at a rate that matches or even exceeds the fervor around West Nile virus in recent years.
“I’d say it’s the single largest demand uptick we’ve seen in years. We are too early in the season to gauge whether or not it’ll prove to be unprecedented,” said Andrew Wundrock, the company’s senior vice president for sales and marketing.
Spectrum Brands, the maker of Cutter and Repel insect repellents, told investors last week that Zika factored into record quarterly earnings for its home and garden division, while Terminix’s parent company reported a surge of interest in the mosquito-control services it introduced 18 months ago.
“We can’t say whether the Zika conversation will directly impact sales, but we do believe our education and awareness efforts around the potential dangers will encourage our customers to protect their homes and families with mosquito treatments,” ServiceMaster Global Holdings CEO Rob Gillette told investors Wednesday on an earnings call.
Like yellow fever and dengue, the Zika virus is carried primarily by the Aedes aegypti mosquito, a nasty day biter that will feast on multiple people in a single bloodmeal.
Mosquito Joe tries to stamp out the bugs before they get inside the home by surveying property for standing water where mosquitoes breed and spraying leaves and other mosquito rest stops with a synthetic version of pyrethrin, a compound that chrysanthemums use as a natural defense against insects.
The company has 172 locations in 26 states, including 30 franchises in Texas and 20 in Florida. When Southeast franchises speak to clients, “Zika is one of the first things that come up,” Mr. Wilson said.
Southeastern states are most vulnerable to the aegypti, though researchers in Mexico have found the Zika virus in another species, Aedes albopictus. That breed has an even larger footprint in the U.S., raising the stakes for mosquito-control forces in places as far north as New York City.
“I know [Donald] Trump wants to build a wall, but I’m not sure it’s going to keep the mosquitoes from coming across,” Mr. Wilson said of the presumptive Republican presidential nominee.
Consumers and scientists alike are getting acquainted with the latest global health scare. The Zika virus was discovered in Uganda in 1947 but remained relatively dormant for decades, mainly affecting monkeys, before it hopscotched to Pacific islands in 2007 and to South America in recent years.
Mr. Wilson said he has known about Zika for a while because researching mosquito-borne illnesses is part of the job. Now, he is educating prospective clients with a webpage of CDC facts on Zika.
Though the facts are daunting, he said, his direct-mail advertising won’t change. He vows to stick with his lighthearted tag lines — “Tired of donating blood on your way to the mailbox?” — instead of spooking potential clients.
“We take what we do very seriously,” he said, “but our goal is not to use scare tactics to get people to use our services.”
Florida Gov. Rick Scott, a Republican, is urging Congress to brush aside partisanship and treat the looming Zika virus “like a hurricane.” He said his state is depending on resources and specific planning to gird for an outbreak.
Florida has recorded more than 100 travel-related cases of Zika, and health officials warn that the disease could puncture the states further once temperatures climb and mosquito populations flourish.
President Obama has asked Congress to approve his $1.9 billion request for emergency spending to combat Zika and backfill $510 million in Ebola funding that he has shifted to the burgeoning threat.
Yet Republican leaders say the Ebola funding should cover immediate costs and that additional money could be disbursed through this year’s appropriations process.
Last week, Senate Majority Whip John Cornyn, Texas Republican, said he doesn’t want to give the administration a “blank check” to fight Zika, while House conservatives have demanded that any additional spending be offset by budget cuts elsewhere.
Mr. Scott didn’t suggest a dollar amount in his statement Thursday, though he is adding his voice to those of other Florida Republicans who want Congress to act before Zika hits. The Sunshine State is relatively warm and has significant populations of the Aedes aegypti mosquito.
Sen. Marco Rubio, Florida Republican, has urged fellow lawmakers to approve Mr. Obama’s funding request as long as it’s used solely to combat Zika.