On July 14th, Verily, the life science arm of Alphabet–Google’s parent company–started releasing bacteria-infected mosquitoes in Fresno, California.
About 20 million lab-made, male mosquitoes carrying the Wolbachia bacteria, which is harmless to humans and makes the mosquitoes sterile, have been released in Fresno, CA as part of Verily’s Debug project launched in October 2016.
According to Verily, the Debug project is an initiative which aims “to reduce the devastating global health impact that disease-carrying mosquitoes inflict on people around the world.”#Verily to release 20 million bacteria-infected mosquitoes in #Fresno!Click To Tweet
As part of this initiative, Verily launched Debug Fresno, the first field of study in the U.S. to test a potential mosquito control method using sterile insect technique in collaboration with two insect control companies: MosquitoMate and Fresno County’s Consolidated Mosquito Abatement District.
How Debug Fresno Works
The dengue, chikungunya, and Zika-carrying mosquito, Aedes Aegypti, is prevalent in Fresno County. In January this year, a woman from the said county was confirmed to have contracted the Zika virus through sexual transmission. According to the Fresno Bee, the unidentified woman acquired the viral infection from her partner who got infected while traveling.
Verily’s mosquitoes were treated with a naturally occurring bacterium called Wolbachia that will help prevent the virus from spreading. Wolbachia makes male mosquitoes sterile, and when they mate with female mosquitoes, the resulting eggs will not hatch.
For 20 weeks, the mosquitoes will be released gradually – 1 million mosquitoes per week – in two 300-acre neighborhoods in Fresno.
To measure the outcomes, researchers from Verily will compare the adult population density and egg hatching of Aedes Aegypti in the two targeted areas. People involved in the project are hoping that the experiment will result in a steep decline in the presence of the mosquitoes in the said areas.
As a bonus, male mosquitoes do not bite, so Fresno residents have nothing to worry about.
Organizations With the Same Initiative
Verily’s Debug project is just one of the many efforts by organizations and companies to help stop the spread of deadly viruses and diseases by using altered insects. The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation has also been conducting their own research in bacteria-infected mosquitoes.
Last year, it was reported that billionaire Bill Gates was in talks with Latin American governments and scientists over plans of releasing sterile mosquitoes. The said project cost $16 million USD and was supposed to cover Medellín, Colombia’s three million people.
The first breed of Wolbachia-infected mosquitoes was made by scientists at Monash University in Australia. The mosquitoes were tested in Australia, Indonesia, Vietnam, and Rio de Janeiro as part of a dengue-eradication program which Gates’ funded with $40 million USD.
Mosquito Mate, a local insect control company in Kentucky, previously made their own small field studies in Los Angeles and Fresno area. But, by collaborating with Verily, the study is now 25 times more than they did before.
Verily’s automated approach is hoping to help lower the costs for communities wanting to control mosquitoes. Linus Upson, a senior engineer at Verily, said:
“If we really want to be able to help people globally, we need to be able to produce a lot of mosquitoes, distribute them to where they need to be, and measure the populations at very, very low costs.”
Upson further added that they are also planning to conduct a field test in Australia later this year to show that their approach can work in different kinds of environment.