Oxford-based scientists are of the idea that dengue fever, mosquito-borne disease, can be fought by disrupting their breeding in high-risk areas with insects that are genetically modified.
Dengue fever kills around 20,000 people a year and the Aedes aegypti mosquito, which is responsible for spreading the disease, can now be found in 110 countries.
AdvertisementBehind an unmarked door at the side of an anonymous second world war Nissen hut in the middle of Oxfordshire, a group of scientists are attending to the needs of hundreds of thousands of mosquitoes. They provide horse blood for the females to feed on, moist beds for them to lay their eggs, and add genes that transform the mosquitoes into what could be the most decisive tool yet invented to combat mosquito-borne disease.
The mosquitoes developed and raised here at the laboratories of Oxitec, a British biotech company based near Didcot, have already infiltrated wild populations in Brazil, Malaysia and the Cayman Islands, and will soon be unleashed in Panama and India.
The company hopes that it will reduce populations of disease-carrying mosquitoes by 80 percent but public opposition to anything "genetically modified" remains a significant obstacle to the possibility of saving thousands of lives.
"From a scientific point of view and an environmental sustainability point of view, we think we have a really good solution to the problem," the Observer quoted Hadyn Parry, the CEO of Oxitec, as saying.
The company, which emerged from Oxford University in 2002, is primarily focused on dengue fever, which can cause excruciating pain and death, and the Aedes aegypti mosquito, which carries it.
The main weapons against A aegypti, pesticides and education, have had little success in preventing its spread. Pesticides are only effective when the mosquitoes can be seen and touched with spray. Educating people to empty any vessel around the home that could contain water is only as effective as the diligence of the individuals involved.
The company, Oxford Insect Technologies in its unabbreviated form, believes its technique is effective, cheap and far less damaging to the environment than the use of pesticides but its problem is the phrase "genetically modified" and the kneejerk fears it engenders.
Critics see a ruthless corporate giant aiming to monopolise a market for commercial ends, which could have unknown effects on unknown things. For many critics, the mystery is often as potent as the evidence.
Oxitec has already tested its method with Anopheles mosquitoes, which spread malaria.
It is unlikely that any single method could completely eradicate any species of mosquito but the introduction of Oxitec's modified mosquitoes could combine with existing techniques such as bed nets and education to manage mosquito-borne diseases far more effectively than is being done presently.