- Thomson Reuters
It’s been a year since the untreatable Zika virus was first identified in the Americas.
Since then, it’s grown into a global health emergency, with public health officials, governments, and researchers alike scrambling for solutions.
One solution? Getting rid of Zika’s main method of spreading from person to person, the Aedes aegypti mosquito. To do this, one company is genetically engineering the bugs so they pass a lethal gene to their offspring.
A small region just south of Cuba just announced plans to deploy the critters to fend off Zika, making it the second location to do so. The US is still considering using the mosquitoes in certain areas, but hasn’t done so yet.
The region is the Cayman Islands, a British territory of about 58,000 people composed of three islands (of which only one has the potential for locally transmitted Zika – no cases have been reported just yet*).
Oxitec, the biotech company that makes these mosquitoes, launched another GM-mosquito disease-prevention program in Brazil in 2015 which targeted dengue and yellow fever, two diseases that are also transmitted by the A. aegypti mosquito. Oxitec has since expanded that program in response to the Zika outbreak.
To fend off the disease-carrying bugs, Oxitec genetically modifies male mosquitoes to carry a lethal gene. Those bugs mate with female mosquitoes, pass on the gene that kills that offspring before it becomes an adult mosquito – and eventually, a sizeably smaller mosquito population.
The Cayman Island project is focused on the Grand Cayman island. For the first two months, Oxitec and the Cayman Islands’ Mosquito Research and Control Unit (MRCU) will educate people about the mosquitoes and make sure they’re aware these bugs are not the ones spreading disease. Then, Oxitec will deploy enough mosquitoes to try and protect an area of 1,800 residents on the Grand Cayman island from Zika. From there, the project can expand as necessary.
“It is one of those times where you are very grateful to see a mosquito, because you know it’s going to do its job, and there will be fewer mosquitoes around to bite and transmit disease once it’s done,” Dr. Alan Wheeler, an assistant director with the MRCU said in a news release.
As with anything that includes the words “genetically modified,” some are leery about the prospect of this potential solution, instead suggesting that they’re part of the reason the Zika outbreak has been so extreme. But so far, there’s no evidence that the genetically modified mosquitoes play a role, Dr. Andrew Pavia, Chief of the Division of Pediatric Infectious Diseases at the University of Utah Health Care told Business Insider in January.
*This post has been updated to reflect that no cases of locally transmitted Zika have been reported on the Cayman Islands yet.