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.
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.
More In Sight: