Alphabet Unit Experiment Shows Promise in Reducing Disease Bearing Mosquitos

Published May 4, 2020

A project operated by Verily Life Sciences (VLS) to wipe out mosquitoes that spread diseases such as dengue fever,  encephalitis, malaria, Saint Louis Encephalitis, West Nile virus, and Zika, among others, is having success in tests at three sites in California, according to a report in Nature Biotechnology.

With government approval and oversight, the Debug Fresno project was begun by small start-up company, Mosquito Mate. VLS, a unit of Alphabet, the parent company of Google, took over the project, using its greater resources to expand the effort.

Mosquito Mate began releasing lab-bred Aedes aegypti male mosquitoes infected with the bacterium Wolbachia into several Fresno County neighborhoods in 2016. When male mosquitoes carrying Wolbachia mate with females, the offspring fail to hatch. Under VLS’s control, the program has released approximately 15 million Wolbachia-infected male mosquitoes at the three Fresno county sites.

Drastic Reduction of Female Mosquitoes

Working with public health officials in the district, VLS released up to 80,000 mosquitoes each day in three neighborhoods between April 2018 and October 2018. After checking its mosquito traps each night, the researchers concluded Wolbachia-infected males successfully suppressed more than 95 percent of the female mosquito population in the areas surrounding the test sites. Suppressing female mosquitoes is critical to preventing the spread of mosquito-borne diseases, because only females bite.

VLS’s approach to mosquito control is less controversial than other techniques being used or tested to control mosquitoes. It uses no chemicals or toxins, nor does it require genetically modifying mosquitoes to make them sterile or produce sterile offspring. Instead, Wolbachia is a naturally occurring bacterium in some mosquito species, just not the Aedes aegypti. VLS’s approach uses modern technologies to insert a desired trait into the targeted mosquito subspecies and then allowing them to interbreed, similar to cross-breeding techniques honed over centuries to select for desired traits in plants and animals.

Expanding the Program

VLS’s funding, global reach, and size allowed it to rapidly ramp up the breeding and release process, making it possible to introduce infected mosquitoes beyond local neighborhoods to entire areas or regions.

Various news outlets report VLS is partnering with governments and institutions around the globe, including in Australia and Singapore, to use their technology to prevent the spread of mosquito-borne diseases. In Singapore, for example, VLS partnered with the National Environment Agency to introduce infected mosquitoes in 121 urban residential blocks containing approximately 45,000 residents.

VLS has also reached out to various South American and Caribbean governments in hopes of expanding the program, over time, to any and all countries where mosquitoes spread diseases.

H. Sterling Burnett, Ph.D. ([email protected]) is a senior fellow at The Heartland Institute.