How It Works

Scientists release geneticall­y modified mosquitoes to fight deadly dengue


Scientists in Brazil are releasing geneticall­y modified mosquitoes into the environmen­t to combat soaring cases of dengue fever in the country. More than a million cases of the viral infection have been reported in the first two months of 2024, 226 per cent more than were reported in the same period in 2023. Various cities are in states of emergency. In February, Rio de Janeiro declared the outbreak a public health emergency after the city recorded more than 42,000 cases of the disease since the start of the year.

Almost half of the world’s population lives in areas with a risk of dengue infection. In Brazil the disease is endemic, meaning it is constantly circulatin­g. Between 2003 and 2019, more than 11 million cases were reported in the country, with peak transmissi­on normally occurring during the annual rainy season from October to May. Unusually large outbreaks occur roughly every three to four years. Only one in four people who are infected with the dengue virus develop symptoms of disease, which include fever, headaches and nausea. These symptoms generally clear within two to seven days. However, the disease can sometimes progress and become severe, leading to hospitalis­ation and possibly death.

There is no specific treatment available for the infection; instead, medical care aims to

relieve patients’ pain and maintain their vitals. The disease can’t be spread directly from person to person. Faced with a rising number of dengue cases, health authoritie­s in Brazil are testing alternativ­e approaches to control the spread of the disease in addition to rolling out a vaccine. These strategies include the use of geneticall­y modified mosquitoes, an effort spearheade­d by biotech company Oxitec.

The company breeds male Aedes aegypti mosquitoes, the species that spreads the dengue fever virus to humans, that are geneticall­y modified to carry a gene that kills any female offspring they spawn before the pests reach adulthood. Dengue fever is spread through the bites of female A. aegypti mosquitoes, so releasing these modified mosquitoes into a region can help reduce the number of pests that can spread the virus to people. The eggs of Oxitec’s modified male mosquitoes are placed in boxes and are prompted to hatch with the addition of water. A. aegypti mosquitoes normally lay their eggs in stagnant water – specifical­ly on the inner walls of containers holding the water, such as bowls or tyres – thus Oxitec’s boxes mimic what happens in the wild.

The modified mosquitoes “complete the cycle inside these boxes in about ten days and the adult insects come out to do their work,” Natalia Ferreira, Oxitec’s general manager in Brazil, said. The approach can reduce A. aegypti population numbers by up to 90 per cent in regions where the geneticall­y modified mosquitoes are released. Oxitec is releasing these modified mosquitoes in numerous cities in Brazil, including Suzano in the state of São Paulo, which declared a state of emergency due to dengue fever in February. There have been concerns that these geneticall­y modified mosquitoes sometimes produce viable offspring that can survive to pass on their genes to native insects, with unknown consequenc­es. But so far there’s no evidence to suggest this could harm humans.

 ?? ?? Geneticall­y modified mosquitoes are being released in Brazil to reduce the spread of a viral infection
Geneticall­y modified mosquitoes are being released in Brazil to reduce the spread of a viral infection

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