The first large-scale release of mosquitoes engineered to be incapable of transmitting diseases has proved successful in halting dengue fever outbreaks in a city in northern Australia. The mosquitos are infected with Wolbachia bacteria, a natural bacteria occurring in 60 percent of all insect species that reduces their ability to transmit diseases to humans.
The project, which took place in Townsville, Queensland, involved the deployment of specially-bred mosquitos across 66 kilometers of the city. Four rainy seasons have passed since their release and Townsville hasn’t seen a single case of dengue. The discovery has the potential to transform the fight against life-threatening mosquito-borne diseases, including the Zika virus and malaria, according to The Guardian.
Director of the World Mosquito Program at Monash University Scott O’Neill spoke to the success of the project.
“I’m ecstatic. After a long slog in my career in doing this, I think this is a piece of work I’m really quite proud of because it really shows we’ll be able to take this all the way, I think.”
O’Neill added that the success of the Australian study may be the first indication that there is a solution for slowing down or halting mosquito-borne diseases, especially as previous efforts to do so have yet to make a major impact.
The project also saw large community participation, with schoolchildren involved in growing and releasing the mosquitos. The program has now spread to 11 other countries, with community projects taking place specifically in high-risk regions, including Rio de Janeiro in Brazil, Medellin in Colombia, and Indonesia.
In Rio de Janeiro, mosquitos have been released in the hope of targeting and eliminating the Zika virus. The results look promising, but the experiment has only been conducted in small areas of the city.
As of now, O’Neill is confident that the technology for creating Wolbachia-carrying mosquitos is safe and does not prove to have any downsides for the environment. The mosquitos have been in the field for seven years and the effects have not slowed down, providing hope that the solution is long-lasting.
The next big project will take place in Yogyakarta, Indonesia, where O’Neill and his colleagues plan to conduct a randomized controlled trial to track the disease burden in areas with and without the presence of the Wolbachia-carrying mosquitos.
In the long run, the World Mosquito Program is aiming to use the mosquito technology to target other diseases, specifically malaria.
“There is lab data showing this approach could be effective in malaria as well, but that is much further upstream,” said O’Neill, as per The Guardian article.