Since 2015, Zika has been a public health concern in most of the Western Hemisphere. But biotech startup MosquitoMate is furthering prevention efforts by attempting to sterilize disease-carrying mosquito populations.
For the past year, researchers have worked on a way to prevent the spread of the virus. The mosquito that transmits the virus, Aedes Aegypti, is more aggressive than other mosquito species. They bite humans both during day and night, and need a minimal amount of water to lay their eggs.
Wired has profiled the MosquitoMate’s experiments with mosquitoes infected with the Wolbachia microbe. While scientists aren’t sure why, Wolbachia disrupts the reproductive process. When the microbe is present in one or both mating mosquitoes, the resulting eggs are not able to hatch. MosquitoMate is basing their efforts on this research. The lab is infecting the eggs of Aedes Albopictus, a related mosquito that can mate with Aegyptius, with Wolbachia. The insects arethen released into Clovis California, a Zika hotspot. Hundreds of thousands are expected to be released by the end of summer to maximize potential mates for Aegypti females. Once the eggs are laid, they shouldn’t hatch. An upside to these efforts is that the males don’t bite; only females do, to lay their eggs.
The solution sounds straightforward but is still experimental. It’s also difficult to implement nationwide because different states have different processes for getting such a procedure approved. For example, the EPA oversees the procedure in California. The same procedure in Florida, on the other hand, involves more FDA oversight— which can be slow to approve an experiment like this. The problem is compounded by the fact that Florida is one of the states with the highest Zika-transmission risk.
Bureaucratic hurdles aren’t the only issue MosquitoMate and similar labs face. The community needs to be on board too. Some are suspicious of the procedure, and others find the thousands of new mosquitoes— even though they don’t bite— to be a nuisance. Researchers are hopeful that Wolbachia-infected mosquitoes will reduce the disease-carrying agents, but it is suffering from a negative public perception. To combat this, the lab has been engaging in community education and outreach efforts.