The Zika virus is spreading like wildfire, says the World Health Organization, putting millions of people at risk.
Transmitted through the sting of an infected mosquito, the virus can cause a birth defect called microcephaly in newborn babies. The rare condition shrinks the brains of unborn babies and could affect as many as 4 million people before a vaccine is developed.
But scientists at the biotech firm Oxitec, based in the U.K., have an alternative plan. They want to unleash armies of gene-hacked mosquitoes into Brazilian jungles to seek and destroy the disease-carrying insects.
The genetically modified mosquitoes wouldn’t fight the Zika carriers in probiscus-to-probiscus combat. In fact, these mosquitoes make love, not war.
That’s because the mosquitoes, specifically a strain called Aedes aegypti, would be modified in the lab first to carry a gene that would be transferred to their offspring after mating with wild versions in the jungle.
The gene causes young mosquitoes to die before they reach reproductive age.
Research and development of genetically engineered Aedes aegypti is already well underway at Oxitec because the mosquito carries other tropical diseases, such as dengue fever, that the biotech firm has been working to reduce.
In experiments Oxitec undertook in various locations of Latin America and Asia, their genetically modified mosquitoes reduced populations of wild mosquitoes by 90 percent.
All Oxitec has to do is release swarms of the genetically modified mosquitoes in Brazil.
And actually, the biotech firm already has plans to open a lab in Piracicaba, Brazil, that will churn out millions of gene-hacked mosquitoes.
In a press release, Oxitec CEO Hadyn Parry said, “As the principal source for the fastest growing vector-borne infection in the world in Dengue Fever, as well as the increasingly challenging Zika virus, controlling the Aedes aegypti population provides the best defense against these serious diseases for which there are no cures.”