Researcher Gan Renxian releases adult mosquitoes as he rides in a cart on China’s Shazai Island, where the Sun Yat-Sen University-Michigan State University Joint Center of Vector Control for Tropical Disease is conducting its release field program. All photos were shot between June 20 and June 23. (Kevin Frayer/Getty Images)

Gan Renxian releases adult mosquitoes in a village on Shazai Island. (Kevin Frayer/Getty Images)

A woman sweeps in front of her house as mosquitoes are released nearby. (Kevin Frayer/Getty Images)

In the world’s largest mosquito farm, millions of males are being bred at a furious pace for release on an island in Southern China. It’s all part of a plan to suppress a mosquito that can transmit the Zika virus. And so far, the results are stunning.

The man behind this government-backed experiment is Zhiyong Xi, professor at Sun Yat-sen University and Michigan State University. Inside the fluorescent compound in Guangzhou, China, Xi and a team of researchers are experimenting with using the biology of the Aedes mosquito against itself.

The process goes like this. Male mosquitoes are infected with Wolbachia bacteria, which does two things: inhibit the Zika virus and disrupt the reproduction process. Researchers then cart the mosquitoes out to Shazai Island, where they are set free. (Thankfully for the residents, only females bite.) Through mating with the lab-bred males, females are themselves infected. Subsequent attempts by the females to reproduce only result in infertile eggs. Overall, the mosquito population should decline — or even disappear.

Results from a year of tests are very promising. The lab says they have suppressed 99 percent of the population. Xi told The Global Times that one month, only one larva hatched of all the collected egg samples.


Lab technicians pour mosquito pupae into containers. (Kevin Frayer/Getty Images)

Researcher and PhD student Zhang Dongjing displays a container of sterile adult male mosquitoes that are ready to be released in a lab in Guangzhou, China. (Kevin Frayer/Getty Images)

Adult female mosquitoes are seen under a microscope. (Kevin Frayer/Getty Images)

Mosquito larvae, as males and females are separated. (Kevin Frayer/Getty Images)

Professor Zhiyong Xi stands in the mass production facility in the lab. He is leading the project. (Kevin Frayer/Getty Images)

A lab engineer uses an electric racket to kill stray mosquitoes. (Kevin Frayer/Getty Images)

Left, researcher and PhD student Zhang Dongjing checks trays of mosquito larvae. Right, a researcher pours blood onto a hot plate to feed mosquitoes. (Kevin Frayer/Getty Images)

A lab technician looks at cages of adult male mosquitoes. (Kevin Frayer/Getty Images)

For years, scientists considered Zika relatively benign, and therefore conducted little research on it. And today, there are a plethora of unknowns about the disease. Why do some infected women give birth to healthy babies, others to babies with severe neurological defects? How long does the virus persist in an infected person? Researchers only recently verified the link between the Zika virus and microcephaly.

So teams from all around the world are testing potential vaccines, treatments and other ways to combat the virus. A biotechnology company in Britain, Oxitec, is attempting to genetically modify mosquitoes so that they die before reaching adulthood and ultimately fail to reproduce. The problem with both this and Xi’s methods are that they could potentially set off an ecosystem imbalance.

Still, both teams are plowing ahead. Xi hopes to build a factory in Brazil, with cooperation from the government. He also wants to experiment with using drones to release the mosquitoes.

But more testing is needed first. Xi’s team will be bringing the experiment to other parts of China. And the technology may still be two or three years off from being used on a wider scale — in some views, two or three years too long.


Local fisherman Chen Shourongon paddles her boat on Shazai Island. (Kevin Frayer/Getty Images)

A farmer loads melons onto a cart on Shazai Island. (Kevin Frayer/Getty Images)

A villager walks to her house. In the background is a coal-fueled plant. (Kevin Frayer/Getty Images)

Residents drive past an information poster on the Zika virus. (Kevin Frayer/Getty Images)

Residents gather at a market on Shazai Island. (Kevin Frayer/Getty Images)

A woman holds her grandson near mosquito netting in their house. (Kevin Frayer/Getty Images)

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