You might think having more mosquitoes around would aggravate mosquito-borne viruses like Zika, chikungunya, and dengue fever. However, according to a BBC report, that’s just what scientists plan to do in Brazil and Colombia to fight recent, dangerous outbreaks.
The $18 million project, funded by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and an international team of donors, will release millions of mosquitoes that are infected with a certain bug called Wolbachia -- a natural bacterium that makes mosquitoes less able to transmit viruses to people.
While the bug already infects around 60% of mosquitoes worldwide, scientists have modified it over the past decade so that it also affects mosquitoes in the Aedes genus, the group most responsible for spreading diseases like Zika and Dengue.
The plan is for these infected mosquitoes to be introduced into the greater population and breed with uninfected mosquitoes. The resulting offspring will also carry the bug and will be less able to contract dangerous viruses and pass them along to humans, effectively cutting transmission rates. Wolbachia also uses many of the resources that dengue and Zika need to replicate, so the added competition makes it much harder for the diseases to survive.
Safe for humans
The scientists working on the project want to make it clear that they have done extensive research on Wolbachia. Consistent findings show that it does not harm humans.
“In the communities we have already worked with there have initially been two concerns. One was that the mosquitoes might harm them in some way or that there might be some unintended consequences. It is a testament to our community engagement teams working really closely with communities to answer questions that all the communities we work with are fully supportive,” explained Professor Scott O’Neill from the Eliminate Dengue Program.
“We explained Wolbachia bugs are present in so many insects worldwide that millions of humans come into contact with them everyday with no problems. And in the six years we have been doing these trials there have been no problems,” he added.
Affordable, sustainable protection
The plan has the potential to provide a great deal of protection against dangerous viruses that plague us now.
“It’s affordable, sustainable, and appears to provide protection against Zika, dengue and a host of other viruses. We are eager to study its impact on how it can help countries,” said Dr. Trevor Mundel of the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation.
Researchers plan to start trials in large urban areas in Bello, Colombia, parts of Antioquia, and the greater Rio de Janeiro areas. The program will be monitored for three years to see how effective it is at reducing cases of dengue fever, Zika virus, and chikungunya virus.