Tech com­pa­nies wage war on mos­qui­toes

Kuwait Times - - ANALYSIS -

Amer­i­can tech­nol­ogy com­pa­nies are bring­ing au­to­ma­tion and ro­bot­ics to the age-old task of bat­tling mos­qui­toes in a bid to halt the spread of Zika and other mos­quito-borne mal­adies world­wide. Firms in­clud­ing Mi­crosoft Corp and Cal­i­for­nia life sciences com­pany Ver­ily are form­ing part­ner­ships with pub­lic health of­fi­cials in sev­eral US states to test new high-tech tools. In Texas, Mi­crosoft is test­ing a smart trap to iso­late and cap­ture Aedes ae­gypti mos­qui­toes, known Zika car­ri­ers, for study by en­to­mol­o­gists to give them a jump on pre­dict­ing out­breaks.

Ver­ily, Al­pha­bet’s life sciences di­vi­sion based in Moun­tain View, Cal­i­for­nia, is speeding the process for cre­at­ing ster­ile male mos­qui­toes to mate with fe­males in the wild, of­fer­ing a form of birth con­trol for the species. While it may take years for these ad­vances to be­come widely avail­able, pub­lic health ex­perts say new play­ers brings fresh think­ing to vec­tor con­trol, which still re­lies heav­ily on tra­di­tional de­fenses such as lar­vi­cides and in­sec­ti­cides. “It’s ex­cit­ing when tech­nol­ogy com­pa­nies come on board,” said Anan­dasankar Ray, an as­so­ciate pro­fes­sor of en­to­mol­ogy at the Univer­sity of Cal­i­for­nia, River­side. “Their ap­proach to a bi­o­log­i­cal chal­lenge is to en­gi­neer a so­lu­tion.”

Smart Traps

The Zika epi­demic that emerged in Brazil in 2015 and left thou­sands of ba­bies suf­fer­ing from birth de­fects has added ur­gency to the ef­fort. While cases there have slowed markedly, mos­qui­toes ca­pa­ble of car­ry­ing the virus - Aedes ae­gypti and Aedes al­bopic­tus - are spread­ing in the Amer­i­cas, in­clud­ing large swaths of the south­ern United States. The vast ma­jor­ity of the 5,365 Zika cases re­ported in the United States so far are from trav­el­ers who con­tracted the virus else­where. Still, two states - Texas and Florida have recorded cases trans­mit­ted by lo­cal mos­qui­toes, mak­ing them prime test­ing grounds for new tech­nol­ogy.

In Texas, 10 mos­quito traps made by Mi­crosoft are op­er­at­ing in Har­ris County, which in­cludes the city of Hous­ton. Roughly the size of large bird­houses, the de­vices use ro­bot­ics, in­frared sen­sors, ma­chine learn­ing and cloud com­put­ing to help health of­fi­cials keep tabs on po­ten­tial dis­ease car­ri­ers. Texas recorded six cases of lo­cal mos­quito trans­mis­sion of Zika in Novem­ber and De­cem­ber of last year. Ex­perts be­lieve the ac­tual num­ber is likely higher be­cause most in­fected peo­ple do not de­velop symp­toms.

Preg­nant women are at high risk be­cause they can pass the virus to their fe­tuses, re­sult­ing in a va­ri­ety of birth de­fects. Those in­clude mi­cro­cephaly, a con­di­tion in which in­fants are born with un­der­sized skulls and brains. The World Health Or­ga­ni­za­tion de­clared Zika a global health emer­gency in Feb 2016. Most con­ven­tional mos­quito traps cap­ture all com­ers - moths, flies, other mos­quito va­ri­eties leav­ing a pile of spec­i­mens for en­to­mol­o­gists to sort through. The Mi­crosoft ma­chines dif­fer­en­ti­ate in­sects by mea­sur­ing a fea­ture unique to each species: the shad­ows cast by their beat­ing wings. When a trap de­tects an Aedes ae­gypti in one of its 64 cham­bers, the door slams shut.

The ma­chine “makes a de­ci­sion about whether to trap it,” said Ethan Jack­son, a Mi­crosoft en­gi­neer who is devel­op­ing the de­vice. The Hous­ton tests, be­gun last sum­mer, showed the traps could de­tect Aedes ae­gypti and other med­i­cally im­por­tant mos­qui­toes with 85 per­cent ac­cu­racy, Jack­son said. The ma­chines also record shad­ows made by other in­sects as well as en­vi­ron­men­tal con­di­tions such as tem­per­a­ture and hu­mid­ity. The data can be used to build mod­els to pre­dict where and when mos­qui­toes are ac­tive.

Mustapha Deb­boun, di­rec­tor of Har­ris County’s mos­quito and vec­tor con­trol di­vi­sion, said the traps save time and give re­searchers more in­sight into mos­quito be­hav­ior. “For science and re­search, this is a dream come true,” he said. The traps are pro­to­types now. But Mi­crosoft’s Jack­son said the com­pany even­tu­ally hopes to sell them for a few hun­dred dol­lars each, roughly the price of con­ven­tional traps. The goal is to spur wide adop­tion, par­tic­u­larly in devel­op­ing coun­tries, to de­tect po­ten­tial epi­demics be­fore they start.

“What we hope is (the traps) will al­low us to bring more pre­ci­sion to pub­lic health,” Jack­son said. SORT­ING MOS­QUI­TOES WITH RO­BOTS Other com­pa­nies, mean­while, are devel­op­ing tech­nol­ogy to shrink mos­quito pop­u­la­tions by ren­der­ing male Aedes ae­gypti mos­qui­toes ster­ile. When these ster­ile males mate with fe­males in the wild, their eggs don’t hatch. The strat­egy of­fers an al­ter­na­tive to chem­i­cal pes­ti­cides. But it re­quires the re­lease of mil­lions of lab­o­ra­tory-bred mos­qui­toes into the out­doors. Males don’t bite, which has made this an eas­ier sell to places now host­ing tests.

Ox­itec, an Ox­ford, Eng­land-based di­vi­sion of Ger­man­town, Mary­land-based In­trexon Corp, is cre­at­ing male mos­qui­toes ge­net­i­cally mod­i­fied to be ster­ile. It has al­ready de­ployed them in Brazil, and is seek­ing reg­u­la­tory ap­proval for tests in Florida and Texas. MosquitoMate Inc, a startup formed by re­searchers at the Univer­sity of Ken­tucky, is us­ing a nat­u­rally oc­cur­ring bac­terium called Wol­bachia to ren­der male mos­qui­toes ster­ile.

One of the big­gest chal­lenges is sort­ing the sexes. At MosquitoMate’s labs in Lex­ing­ton, im­ma­ture mos­qui­toes are forced through a sieve-like mech­a­nism that sep­a­rates the smaller males from the fe­males. These mos­qui­toes are then hand sorted to weed out any stray fe­males that slip through. “That’s ba­si­cally done us­ing eye­balls,” said Stephen Dob­son, MosquitoMate’s chief ex­ec­u­tive.

En­ter Ver­ily. The com­pany is au­tomat­ing mos­quito sort­ing with ro­bots to make it faster and more af­ford­able. Com­pany of­fi­cials de­clined to be in­ter­viewed. But on its web­site, Ver­ily says it’s com­bin­ing sen­sors, al­go­rithms and “novel engi­neer­ing” to speed the process. Ver­ily and MosquitoMate have teamed up to test their tech­nol­ogy in Fresno, Cal­i­for­nia, where Aedes ae­gypti ar­rived in 2013.

Of­fi­cials worry that res­i­dents who con­tract Zika else­where could spread it in Fresno if they’re bit­ten by lo­cal mos­qui­toes that could pass the virus to oth­ers. “That is very much of a concern be­cause it is the pri­mary vec­tor for dis­eases such as dengue, chikun­gunya and ob­vi­ously Zika,” said Steve Mul­li­gan, man­ager of the Con­sol­i­dated Mos­quito Abate­ment Dis­trict in Fresno County. The study, which still needs state and fed­eral ap­proval, is slated for later this sum­mer. — Reuters

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