AUG. 16, 2017 — Last year, mosquitoes carrying the Zika virus spread from South America into the U.S. Pregnant women, or those trying, lived in fear of a bite that could result in a baby with birth defects.
This year, so far, the buzz is better: Reported Zika cases have dropped in the U.S. and other parts of the world.
Time to sound the “all clear”? Absolutely not. “Zika hasn’t gone away,” said Dr. Anne Schuchat, principal deputy director of the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. “We can’t afford to be complacent.”
No, we can’t. Not while legions of Aedes aegypti and Aedes albopictus — the species believed responsible for most Zika virus transmission — are rapidly expanding their range in the South and West and may push north. Not while pregnant women remain at risk. Babies born to Zika-infected mothers can suffer severe brain damage, hearing or vision loss, seizures and other calamitous effects. Zika can also lead to miscarriage or stillbirth.
That’s why we’ve declared war on mosquitoes. We’ve urged a campaign to wipe this disease-carrier off the face of the Earth. We remain resolute.
Pesticides aren’t enough. Besides, those can kill beneficial insects like bees. New and lethally effective anti-mosquito weapons are urgently needed.
Enter, to our wild applause, Debug Fresno. That’s the largest field study in the U.S. so far to test a potential mosquito-control method using naturally occurring bacteria, not genetic modification. It’s a joint effort of Google parent Alphabet, through its life-sciences subsidiary known as Verily; Kentucky-based MosquitoMate; and the local mosquito abatement district.
How it works: Researchers release millions of male mosquitoes — they don’t bite; only the females do. These males have been treated with the bacteria Wolbachia, common in many insects. When these males mate with females in the wild, the resulting eggs will not hatch. No babies, no new generation — and a sharply reduced threat of Zika and other mosquito-borne viruses.
Fresno, Calif.’s mosquito warriors will release millions of bacteria-infected males through December in two city neighborhoods, each about 300 acres. If all goes well, those areas should show steep declines in the mosquito population. A similar field trial is underway near Key West, Fla. Future test sites could include Houston; Miami; Lee County, Fla.; and Orange County, Calif., according to Jimmy Mains, senior scientist at MosquitoMate.
Ultimately, we hope, this leads to World War M: A full-scale assault on all mosquitoes.
Some critics question whether wiping out all mosquitoes is wise. The naysayers fret that some skeeter-eating bats and birds would need to adjust their diets. But scientists say they could do that easily.
If weaponizing male mosquitoes to stop Zika, malaria, dengue, West Nile and a long list of other mosquito-borne diseases works, great. If not, researchers should keep pursuing another mosquito doomsday weapon.
We all know insect coddlers, kindhearted people who carefully trap spiders and various other crawling home invaders to deposit them gently outdoors. Those who cringe at swatting a fly or a moth, or smushing an ant underfoot. Those who shrink from even ecologically sound pesticides.
But who weeps for the bloodthirsty mosquito?